Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

'God’s Pocket' features Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of last screen appearances

Philip Seymour Hoffman, left, and John Turturro in God's Pocket.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, left, and John Turturro in God’s Pocket.

Timing is everything, unless you’re dead. Then I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re early, late or don’t show up at all. As tragic as the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman will always be, at least he doesn’t have to face the sour reaction to a debacle like the posthumous (and ill-advised) release of a mess called God’s Pocket.

God’s Pocket ★
(1/4 stars)

Written by: Alex Metcalf and John Slattery
Directed by:
John Slattery
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks and Richard Jenkins
Running time: 88 min.

Make no mistake, as Richard Nixon used to say. Mr. Hoffman has a history of appearing in more horrors than I can count. I still have nightmares about a disaster called Synecdoche, New York, in which he played a bulbous no-talent regional theater director trying to put on a third-rate production of Death of a Salesman, a play in which he scored a first-rate success on Broadway. Scrubbing toilets dressed like a woman named Ellen, Mr. Hoffman with breasts and bleeding gums was not a sight I recommend after eating Cajun food. Neither is God’s Pocket. But he was a loyal and dedicated actor who often appeared in bad movies as a favor for friends and colleagues. God’s Pocket is a first-time feature by John Slattery, a solid actor on Mad Men who clearly has no special ability behind the camera worth writing home about. He knows something about how to pace actors and move them across a lens, and he has some good actors here, but there’s nothing remarkable or even remotely intriguing about the dyspeptic gang of submental sad sacks in this dull, flat fiasco. 

The film is adapted from a scuzzy 1983 novel by Pete Dexter named after a trashy neighborhood in South Philly—a part of town where you never want to stop long enough for gas. Mr. Hoffman, in one of his final screen appearances, plays Mickey Scarpato, a penny-ante thief and general good-for-nothing married, for reasons that defy credulity, to an oomphy sex-bomb wife named Jeanie (played by another of the director’s friends, Christina Hendricks, who co-stars with him on Mad Men). The movie opens when Leon, the crazy 22-year-old son she adores and the stepson Mickey detests, dies in a construction accident. Of course, Leon, an ugly, tattooed scab head, racist bully and drug addict, was really murdered, and now the oversexed Jeanie is determined to get to the truth of what happened, with the aid of a seedy, alcoholic columnist (Richard Jenkins), who writes about neighborhood events for a local rag. 

Unnecessary, time-wasting flashbacks to three days before the murder do nothing to explain anything. Mickey takes the money the drunks at the local saloon raise for Leon’s funeral and loses it on the horses. The undertaker (Eddie Marsan) throws the body into the alley in the pouring rain. Mickey piles the corpse into a refrigerated meat truck he was in the process of stealing when Leon died. It spills into the street. Other emerging homespun nonsense involves a brutal florist (John Turturro) and his homicidal wife (aunt?), who kills her customers as though she was arranging carnations. (She is played by Joyce Van Patten, who has certainly seen better days.) Mickey ends up trapped between a stiff he can’t dispose of, a wife who hates him and a debt he owes the entire blue-collar neighborhood. It sounds like a comedy, but it’s as funny as a goiter.

Director Slattery goes all out to make South Philly look like Skid Row. Citizens beat each other up, brandish straight razors and rummage through garbage cans to drink the residue in discarded whiskey bottles. But none of it makes any impression, and all you can do is wonder what attracted so many misguided talents to the material in the first place. Characters are shallow, cinematography murky to the point of revulsion, situations contrived and actors wasted to oblivion. Every scene is so sketchy that even though Mr. Hoffman is the star, he comes off like a bit player. An unbearable waste of time, God’s Pocket is empty inside and out. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead