Saturday, May 17, 2014


It would've been nice if Philip Seymour Hoffman had left behind a classic before he died, something to  make us mourn his talent once again. God's Pocket, which is sneaking unnoticed into theaters and various VOD services this month, is among the movies he had "in the can" before his death in February. It's not quite the farewell performance one hoped for, but it's not bad. As he often did, Hoffman rises above a mediocre movie. He also gives an indication of where his future as an actor might have taken him.

The movie, based on a novel by Pete Dexter, takes place in one of those downbeat urban neighborhoods where people are dumb and violent and proud of it. These neighborhoods often exist in movies, particularly in movies about Boston. This one takes place in a section of Philadelphia, but director John Slattery was born in Boston, so maybe that explains something. Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a local mug whose lunatic step-son is killed by a co-worker at his construction job. Since Mickey's step-son was an ass, his co-workers cover up the incident and make it look like an accident.  A drunk journalist (Richard Jenkins) ventures into the neighborhood to write something about the incident, but the locals take offense at what he writes. He thinks he's paying homage to the downtrodden, but dirty drunks never like being described as dirty drunks.  

There are other little plot-lines along the way, but none are worth rehashing here. The characters have names like "Fat Pat" and "Smiling Jack" and they all drink too much and fight too much. Although the movie tries very hard to be tough and streetwise and mean, the overriding feeling is one of gross, misguided sentiment about a bunch of losers who have never strayed beyond their zip code. 

The first time we see Hoffman, he's humping his wife. It's quite a feat of physicality, for Hoffman is fatter than ever in this movie, and his movements look like they could shake the very walls of the city. I'm not sure why we needed this scene, unless it was to juxtapose against a latter scene when the journalist comes up impotent with a teenage news groupie. Slattery probably sees the denizens of this nasty little neighborhood as brimming with vitality, while the outsiders are old and decrepit. What better way to show this than to have Hoffman pawing away at his wife like an angry, half-blind walrus. When he's done, he rolls off of her and mumbles several declarations of love, which she's heard before. The wife is played by Christina Hendricks, a thin actress with a pointy face who is very good at playing the vapid, uneducated neighborhood gal who has never been anywhere or done anything, but thinks she knows more than you. 

Hoffman slouches around the movie, looking heavier and jowlier than usual, sporting a five-dollar haircut to make him look like one of the neighborhood fellows. He speaks in a deeper, slower voice than usual, affecting the kind of tough guy sound that Jack Nicholson used in films like Prizzi's Honor and Hoffa. Hoffman  sounds a little more convincing than Nicholson, but there's no joy in his acting.  In God's Pocket, he approximates a kind of world weariness that is correct for the part, but in doing so he inadvertently erases any signs of life from his character. He's supposed to be from outside the neighborhood, but there's no marked difference between him and the other slugs. Still, he's as watchable as ever, even when working at half-speed.

What Hoffman looked like to me in this movie was an actor  testing the waters, preparing for a future of playing older men. He'd always looked older than his biological age, and it seemed logical that he would start positioning himself to play older types. How, I wonder, did he see his future as an actor?  Did he envision himself playing a series of Archie Bunker type roles, heavyset living room monarchs mumbling bromides about life? His obituaries were full of comments about how acting drained him, and how playing tortured characters did a  number on him emotionally. I can imagine him seeking out lighter fare, which may have started with his turn as Art Howe in Moneyball a few years ago. That was a smallish role where he was in and out of the movie, but left a memorable image as a cranky, veteran baseball coach. I thought he was better there than in The Master, where he played a bloated, L.Ron Hubbard type. He was fine in The Master, but it was an easy role for him, mostly bluster and menace, like a Bond villain. At times he looked like an old prizefighter windmilling for the fans in the cheap seats. 

According to the IMDB, there will be a few more chances to see Hoffman at work. He had a TV pilot called 'Happyish,' under his belt, followed by a thriller based on a John le Carre novel, and a couple of installments of The Hunger Games franchise. After that, he's really gone.

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