J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

God’s Pocket: South Philly at its South Philliest

Mickey Scarpato was not born-and-bred in this grim working class neighborhood. He married into it. That makes the locals dismiss Scarpato as an outsider. He also stands out because he has what passes for a regular job—boosting trucks for the local syndicate. Unfortunately, his modestly connected life will be completely upended in John Slattery’s God’s Pocket (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Scarpato dotes on his wife Jeanie and gamely tolerates her thuggish grown son, Leon. When the knuckle-dragging Leon makes one racist joke too many at his warehouse job, Scarpato finds himself short of funds to cover a proper funeral. Determined to protect the wrench-wielding Lucien “Old Lucy” Edwards, the foreman attributes Leon’s less than tragic death to a workplace accident. However, for reasons that remain obscure, Scarpato’s grieving wife is convinced there is more to the story (maybe she has what they used to call the shine).

Of course, oily funeral parlor proprietor Smilin’ Jack Moran is not about to cut Scarpato a break. The small-timer’s partner, Arthur “Bird” Capezio also needs an infusion of fast cash to pay-off his loan shark. However, instead of pursuing caperish high jinks, Pocket is far too preoccupied with the boozy ruminations of local columnist Richard Shellburn, who will be writing a story on Leon to make up for the newspaper’s slipshod handling of his death notice.

Frankly, there are times Richard Jenkins’ in-character narration sounds like it might be intended as a parody of the PBS NewsHour’s pretentious video essayists. The fact that it is hard to tell whether the film is going for laughs or not is obviously problematic. Slattery often deliberately aims for absurdist humor (involving Leon’s corpse), but consistently falls short. Only John Turturro reliably hits his comedic marks as Capezio, a role he could probably play in his sleep.

Yes, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman completely transforms himself into the sad hound dog Scarpato, but the character is so dull on the page, it hardly seems worth his efforts. Likewise, Christina Hendricks, Slattery’s Mad Men associate, really has nothing to do as Mother Scarpato except cry and jut. At least Eddie Marsan does his weaselly shtick as Smilin’ Jack.

There are two or three truly electric scenes in Pocket (keep your eye on that foreman), but they are surrounded by a whole lot of blah. We have been to movie neighborhoods like the Pocket before and we have certainly seen them done better. Considering how undistinguished this petty gangster morality tale is and the galloping awfulness of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, perhaps it is time to declare a temporary moratorium on Pete Dexter adaptations. Sure to disappoint Hoffman’s fans hoping for something heavier and more significant, God’s Pocket opens tomorrow (5/9) in New York at the IFC Center.

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