God’s Pocket is a comedy-drama from first time director/Mad Men star John Slattery, set in the working class neighbourhood of God’s Pocket, Philadelphia. Based on a book by Pete Dexter, the plot follows a number of the Pocket’s residents — played by an incredible cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, and Richard Jenkins — on the days between a young man’s death and his funeral. Aside from those two bookends, the plot’s threads are relatively chaotic, all connecting to the death but from that point drifting from one another. Without a firm centre to draw the viewer in through, the film relies on the quality of its characters and their individual stories to grab hold of the viewer, and in this regard it is a failure.
Tonally, the film follows in the footsteps of the Coen brothers, aiming for a delicate mix of low-brow comedy and high-brow drama. The reason this particular type of cinema, one which blurs the lines between humour and tragedy, is so associated with the Coens is the fact that they are one of the few filmmaking teams who have a proven track record of successfully creating such a balance. The denizens of God’s Pocket, with their schemes and tragedies, occasionally deliver on this lofty premise. For instance, in its climactic moment, the film cuts between shots of the characters on their personal misadventures backed by an orchestral swell. This brief inter-cutting of scenes, undoubtedly the most beautiful segment of the film, offers an evocative combination of pathos and humour. But unfortunately such scenes are the exception, not the rule, and the resulting film is more characterised by its ill-shapen dullness as opposed to its occasional flares of brilliance.
The issue lies in this clash between comedy and drama. In flipping between the extremes of mockery and saccharine sincerity, the film risks both trivialising its working class subjects and overstating their case to the point of parody. This is an issue which arises whenever these two disparate genres are blended together; both halves need to be of a high enough pedigree to overcome this troubling duality. Unfortunately, God’s Pocket simply doesn’t cut it. The comedic scenes regularly fall flat while the drama leaves much to be desired, and both are mired in clichés. The phenomenal cast offer some respite from this, but they don’t have much to work with, and the quality of their performances is continually undercut by weak writing.
This results in a film which attempts to portray a working class area and fails to be either entertaining or authentic in its depiction. The monologues on the “true nature” of blue collar life that recur throughout the film, which initially appear to convey a sense of respect and admiration for working class people, in the end seem false and condescending. There is very little that is real about God’s Pocket, and the unreality is not supported by enough quality to make the journey to the cinema worthwhile.