PARK CITY – Transitioning from being in front of the camera to behind it is never easy. And, yes, there are just as many success stories (Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Ben Stiller) as disappointments (William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, David Duchovney), many of whom made this sad discovery at the Sundance Film Festival. On Monday, Sundance is celebrating the inaugural “Free Fail” event with a special day of workshops that will center on artists’ failures and how they allowed them to eventually succeed. John Slattery, best known for his work on “Mad Men,” may want to pop into a few for some tips after the world premiere of his feature directing debut “God’s Pocket” Friday afternoon.
The film is based on the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter who had made a name for himself as a screenwriter in the ’90s writing scripts for films such as “Michael,” “Mulholland Falls” and the adaptation of his own book, “Paris Trout.” Last year, Lee Daniel’ adapted Dexter’s tome “The Paperboy” into what turned out to be a somewhat controversial if underrated feature film. “Pocket” doesn’t veer into the latter’s Southern camp. Instead, the film focuses on the inhabitants of God’s Pocket, a fictional city which appears to be standing in for Philadelphia, Newark or somewhere in between.
The citizens of this broken down, East Coast working city are blue collar, lower middle class people who borrow from Peter to pay Paul and are incredibly protective about everyone who was “born here.” And if you weren’t? Don’t expect to be trusted by anyone at the local bar anytime soon. Appropriately, the picture’s storyline is filled with bookies, a murder cover-up and an impromptu affair that all essentially plays out as a pretty serious drama. Every few scenes, however, it throws in a “shocking” dark comedy moment. A few of these moments are admittedly funny. Overall, the film’s major problem is the tone is uneven and unwieldy. And even the impressive cast Slattery assembled can’t save it.
Not surprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman is his usual grand self as a hustling man trying to make his gorgeous wife (Christina Hendricks) happy after the passing of her mentally unstable son at the beginning of the movie. Hoffman’s character is best pals with another hustler played by John Turturro and the duo have, as you’d expect, great chemistry together. But when Turturro’s character disappears in the third act, the film’s energy drops considerably. Richard Jenkins seems to be going through the motions a bit as a local newspaper columnist with a bit of a drinking problem who is assigned to investigate the death of Hendrick’s son. Eddie Marsan sports a nice Jersey-esque accent as a funeral parlor owner (you wish he had more to do) and Glenn Fleshler has some memorable moments as one of the few good guys in town. Slattery also peppers the picture with a slew of other veteran and relatively unknown character actors who are all game, but can’t help the movie escape its increasingly dour tone.
Slattery, who co-wrote the screenplay, has helmed a number of “Mad Men” episodes in the past and understands the need for a strong ensemble, realistic production design and professional cinematography (although a little more color and light might have helped keep things visually interesting). Oscar winning and nominated actors can’t replace a mixed bag of a script and listless direction, thoguh. But like many before him, he’ll learn some lessons from this endeavor, get up off the floor and try again.
As for its acquisition fate, “God’s Pocket” will likely find its way to audiences with a very limited theatrical release timed to VOD.