If, like me, you were hoping that "God's Pocket," starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final films, would feature yet another of the actor's distinctive turns, you are fresh out of luck.
Hoffman's character, Mickey Scarpato, is a guy whose luck, if he ever had any, ran out long ago. The role should have been a very good fit for an actor so skilled at submerging himself in complicated characters. But Hoffman struggles. You can see it on screen, from the downturned mouth that keeps being forgotten, to the voice that sounds colored by congestion instead of Mickey's depressingly downtrodden life.
Based on Pete Dexter's grim and gripping novel about the bad breaks of lowlifes in a gritty corner of South Philly, Dexter's affection for his miscreants gets lost in translation. Instead the script, written by director John Slattery and Alex Metcalf, drifts too quickly into blue-collar cliches, leaving its interesting collection of characters only half-drawn at best.
It is a particular pity given both the sadness of Hoffman's death from a drug overdose to the creative force that was also lost as a result.
Slattery, best known these days as Don Draper's mentor and boss in "Mad Men," has surrounded himself with an enviable cast for his feature directing debut. Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, another "Mad Men" familiar, and the so often amazing John Turturro join Hoffman for this bumpy ride.
The story unfolds over a few difficult days in Mickey's already difficult life. His wife Jeanie (Hendricks) barely tolerates him; his stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is a psychotic with a switchblade and deep racial resentments. Mickey's got mounting gambling debts, his meat truck is more often carrying contraband than steak, and suddenly he's got to bury that dog of a stepson, "accidentally" killed on a construction site.
There are a couple of ways to play this, light or dark the most obvious ones. But no clear choice is forthcoming and Hoffman moves through both darker and lighter moments with leaden feet. When Leon's body is dumped in a back alley, then loaded into Mickey's meat truck after he comes up short of cash for the funeral, we see neither humor nor pathos in Mickey's predicament; like Leon, the scenes just lie there.
Dexter, a former Philadelphia newspaper columnist, wrote a journalist character into "God's Pocket." Richard Shellburn (Jenkins) writes about the working class, his notoriety giving him cred in this clannish South Philly neighborhood, at least enough that the local dive bar patrons point him to Leon's grieving mother.
Jenkins slips smoothly into the role of alcohol-saturated journalistic lothario wooing the bereaved mom. Hendricks is barely recognizable, trading her "Mad Men" red hair and brass for long dark curls and soft floral print dresses. The way Shellburn and Jeanie commingle lust and need gives the film its very few shining moments.
Mickey is forever left to deal with the messes of others. His journey, which should bring "God's" redemption, is the frustration.
Slattery gets some things right — like the look — with veteran cinematographer Lance Acord, production designer Roshelle Berliner and costume designer Donna Zakowska acing the ambience of the down-market scene. But the plot is underdeveloped and the pacing is disconcertingly off.
"God's Pocket" is unruly and in desperate need of a firmer hand to rein it in.
As for Hoffman, if you are missing his indelible presence on screen, watch "Capote," the role that won him an Oscar in 2006, or the films that earned him a nomination: "The Master," "Doubt" and "Charlie Wilson's War." Or revisit the countless wonderful roles that Oscar overlooked; Hoffman left a treasure trove of them.
MPAA rating: R for violence, language throughout and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Cinemas Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Landmark Theatres, West Los Angeles; also on demandCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times