'God's Pocket': Dexter book finally hits screen

Posted: May 16, 2014

"GOD'S POCKET" is adapted from the book of the same name by former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, and arrives 30 years after events that inspired the story.

Which involved Dexter getting beaten half to death by a group of folks who didn't care for one of his columns - an incident inscribed in newspaper lore, in the legend of Dexter, in the city's own reputation for fight-town toughness.

Randall "Tex" Cobb, who accompanied Dexter on that night, and himself sustained a broken arm, later remarked that in Philadelphia "even the drunks punch in combination."

That view of old-school Philadelphia will be hard to square with the city we know today. Today the book might be called "Graduate Hospital," where a newspaperman who wanders into a neighborhood bar is in grave danger of being served a warm frisee salad.

Even long-time Philadelphians may not recognize the vaguely '80s, rust-belt city we see in the movie - shot in Yonkers, N.Y., directed by "Mad Men" star John Slattery, who drew on his own memories of growing up in working-class Massachusetts.

But the bones of Dexter's story are intact. Local hustler Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to round up money for the funeral of his son (Caleb Landry Jones), who died suspiciously in a construction accident. Richard Jenkins is the alcoholic newspaper columnist who investigates at the behest of the boy's bombshell of a mother (Christina Hendricks). Eddie Marsan is the chiseling funeral director, John Turturro is Mickey's best friend.

Dexter has proved to be a tough novelist to adapt for movies. There is something in his bleakly funny prose that does not translate (or has not yet been translated) to the screen.

"The Paperboy" seemed to miss it entirely, and it's to Slattery's credit that there are moments when "God's Pocket" gets it right - two mobsters, for instance, trying to intimidate an old woman who runs a flower shop. To paraphrase Cobb: In this city, even grandma knows her way around a gun.

Most of the other on-point moments involve the late, great Hoffman as Mickey, broke and desperate, gambling the funeral money on horse races, hauling his son's body around in a meat truck.

Hoffman is a rumpled, tragic mess, and that's as it should be. Still, it's often hard to watch him in the movie, playing a substance abuser, knowing what he was going through.

The other distraction is Hendricks, who's breathy bombshell seems to have wandered into the movie from the Jane Russell '50s, a fuchsia fantasy at odds with the movie's muddy colors and grit.

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