In “God’s Pocket,” Richard Jenkins plays a boozy 1970s newspaper columnist — the kind who unironically writes unctuous paeans to “my town” — who eventually gets attacked by the denizens of a working-class neighborhood when he paints them with a patronizing brush.
It’s an effective moment. But it also represents an appropriate punishment for first-time director John Slattery, since the “Mad Men” star wallows so deeply in beer cans, fading storefronts and lingering cigarette smoke that the movie winds up feeling like its own brand of condescension, the kind expressed through fetishization of the impoverished.
Adapting Pete Dexter’s novel with co-writer Alex Metcalf, Slattery crams as many polyester suits, sweaty translucent polo shirts, hard-luck barflies, visible bra straps and window-unit air conditioners as possible into every frame. By the time the one-legged guy roots through a trashcan looking for deposit bottles, the film seems to be teetering into classist parody.
Not to say that Slattery doesn’t have gifts as a filmmaker — he’s proven himself to be capable behind the camera on “Mad Men,” and he’s gathered a powerful ensemble, all of whom are giving better performances than the material mandates. (Seeing Joyce Van Patten pop up as a not-to-be-trifled-with florist counts as one of the movie’s few pleasant surprises.)
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman (this is one of two of the actor’s final performances that were unveiled at Sundance just weeks before his fatal overdose) stars as Mickey, a shady character who seems constantly involved in one petty scam or another. The movie begins with the funeral of Mickey’s stepson Leon and then flashes back to the tumultuous events that led to the day.
Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is the kind of speed-freak loon given to brandishing a straight razor and telling long, unbelievable stories about his prowess with women and his cruelty to helpless animals. His death occurs at the hands of a co-worker, in thoroughly understandable circumstances, and the foreman decides on a cover story, that something fell from a high winch and hit Leon on the skull.
That explanation doesn’t wash with Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), Leon’s mother and Mickey’s wife, and her efforts to uncover the truth about Leon’s death leads to more tragedy. Meanwhile, Mickey blows on a horserace the money that the local tavern has raised for Leon’s funeral, mobsters are leaning on Mickey’s friend Bird (John Turturro) for his gambling debts and funeral director Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Marsan, playing another memorable bastard) just wants to get paid.
These characters and their dilemmas could be the stuff of great, or at least good, drama, but Slattery’s insistence on accentuating their sorrows with clinically depressed art direction wears thin rather quickly, and it’s not long before the people on screen cease being characters and start standing for, oh, The Death of American Industry or something.
Hoffman completists may feel compelled to check this out on the big screen, but more casual viewers are advised to take a look at home, where they can avert their eyes from the screen to take in the occasional living plant or primary color.