Opens Fri., May 16 at Varsity. Rated R. 88 minutes.
It is no disrespect to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to say that he was often difficult to look at onscreen; his lack of vanity saw him embracing schlubby, disheveled, or out-and-out gross characters. Hoffman’s February death left a few projects still awaiting release, of which God’s Pocket is the first to hit theaters. True to form, he looks terrible in it.
But does he inhabit his role with his customary uncanny veracity? He does. In this period-set adaptation of a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter (now a Whidbey Island resident), Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a flabby working-class mug in a careworn Philly neighborhood called God’s Pocket. Mickey is married to the unsatisfied Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), whose appalling son from a previous marriage, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), is truly the lint in God’s pocket. When this creep is killed at a construction site, the mysterious death raises the curiosity of gangsters and a famous newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins, the Dexter figure). If the latter can stop drinking himself in the direction of oblivion and shagging newspaper groupies (wait, those exist?), he might stumble on something significant. He might even get a crush on Jeanie.
God’s Pocket director John Slattery is best at prowling the streets and alleys of the neighborhood, which is so insular that even a regular Joe like Mickey can’t ever be fully accepted because he isn’t from there. We’re told this is significant, but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much to hapless Mickey. There’s good local color, especially with John Turturro’s butcher (or whatever he is—everybody’s got a shady sideline), Eddie Marsan’s venal undertaker, and various barflies and construction workers. Also, veteran actress Joyce Van Patten nails a very brief turn (that’s how a pro does it, folks). Those performances reflect on Slattery’s taste with actors; he’s an actor himself, best known for his impeccable turn as white-haired devil Roger Sterling on Mad Men.
None of which entirely brings the movie to life, or locates its reason for being. The other characters are vivid, and the sad/dreamy Jenkins could make an art form out of slouching—but where does that leave Mickey? Hoffman, leading with his beer gut and reacting to each new disaster with head-down resignation, is unquestionably that guy. But he’s lost amid the movie’s blue-collar bustle. Everything here is trying just a little too hard to convince you of its authenticity. Everything except Hoffman, who appears to know a lot about disappointment and bad choices. Robert Horton
Opens Fri., May 16 at Harvard Exit. Rated R. 85 minutes.
Bane has a problem. And by Bane we mean Tom Hardy, here cast as a methodical Welsh structural engineer who specializes in concrete. This is a film where you will learn a lot about how that material is poured and processed, from its viscosity to the closing of streets to allow for the mixing trucks to arrive according to schedule. Locke the movie and Locke the individual are nothing if not concrete. This is a film about limits—of emotions, of structures, and of locations. And there is only one location: Locke’s BMW as he heads south through the night from Birmingham toward London—away from a critical job he is abandoning—to attend the birth of a child from a drunken one-night stand. (“I have behaved in a way that is not like me,” he will tell his wife.)
Confining the action to a SUV is a gimmick, as in Lifeboat or Phone Booth—a narrative constraint that writer/director Steven Knight has assigned himself. Locke is essentially a radio play made into a movie. The camera moves up high to track Locke’s journey; there are some visual flourishes; but basically we’re listening to Hardy’s soft rumbling voice for 85 minutes. It’s a one-man dialogue, with calls to and from his wife and two sons, the hospital, his irate bosses, and a panicked Irish underling back at the job site. A veteran English screenwriter (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises), Knight clearly respects literary form and tradition. He explicitly nods to Samuel Beckett, whose pauses and repetitions are echoed here. Ivan Locke keeps telling others, “Everything will be all right,” but he’s really trying to reassure himself against the existential void, the potential loss of job, family, and self-control. He says of his precious 55-story tower, “You make one little mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down.” The symbolism is clear.
The car’s claustrophobia suits Locke’s cramped rationality, his rigorously ruled sense of himself as a man. He loses composure only when yelling at his father, unseen in the backseat, who left and made him a bastard child—as Locke now refuses to do. It’s a miscalculated, stagy device, but it doesn’t ruin the movie’s spell. Hardy gives Locke a calm, steady self-assessment, a kind of lucid despair. He’s a guy forced to realize in one night that his life has no foundation. Brian Miller
Million Dollar Arm
Opens Fri., May 16 at Ark Lodge and other theaters. Rated PG. 124 minutes.
A true story neatly reshaped by the Disney mill, Million Dollar Arm gathers a collection of reliable sports-movie chestnuts with a bit of Moneyball-style backroom negotiating for grit. The exotic touch here is a scenic trip to India, where desperate agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) treks to find a couple of baseball prospects in a country that doesn’t play the sport. It’s a gimmick: JB’s staging the search for a reality-TV competition, and he’s convinced a backer that this stunt might have the benefit of attracting a billion new baseball fans from the subcontinent. The trip takes up the picture’s midsection, and is followed by JB’s attempt to get a USC coach (Bill Paxton) to turn these raw talents into pitchers. There must also be romance, which comes as workaholic JB pauses long enough in his conquest of cheerleader types to notice the plain-but-spunky doctor who lives in his guest house. This being Hollywood, “plain” is embodied by bodacious Lake Bell.
Million Dollar Arm is directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl ) and scripted by Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor), both of whom appear to be punching below their weight, to mix sports metaphors. There are far too many cute gags about how naive the contest winners are, despite the best efforts of Suraj Sharma (the kid from Life of Pi ) and Madhur Mittal. And casting Alan Arkin as a sourpuss old-school baseball scout—he doesn’t have to watch the recruits pitch, he can judge talent by the sound of the ball hitting the mitt—is so lazy that Arkin could be played by his own hologram. The film’s got the soft edges and invisible expertise of a product newly rolled out of the factory.
Devotees of Mad Men may find some fascination in watching Hamm stretch out in a leading-man role that actually has a pleasant, conventional arc. The actor has sustained his masterpiece of a performance as Don Draper on Mad Men so long that it comes as a shock to see self-centered, grim-faced JB loosen up and break into a smile. He finds happiness in the end by learning and growing, don’t you know. That should be an agreeable sight—hey, look, a Jon Hamm character can redeem himself—but if you’re a longtime Mad Men follower, you may also find it absolutely unnerving. Robert Horton
NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage
Opens Fri., May 16 at Sundance Cinemas. Not Rated. 97 minutes.
It’s good to be king. Yet having achieved that purpose in Richard III, already crippled of body and twisted by ambition, the new monarch blows it all. After an unlikely, ruthless rise, his reign is brief and unhappy. How much nicer then to be Kevin Spacey, leading a grateful troupe of Anglo-American Shakespeareans around the world on a world tour! Visiting the Great Wall in China, driving through the sand dunes of Qatar, cruising off the coast of Amalfi—now that’s the way you secure the loyalty of your subjects, and their love. (“I’ve got to find some more rich friends,” says one dazed actor who’s never been outside the U.S. before.)
So is this just a vanity project for Spacey and his stage director, Sam Mendes, a kind of belated infomercial for a theater production we can’t see? (The tour ended two years ago in New York.) In descending order of importance, this awkwardly titled documentary celebrates three things: our benevolent patron Spacey, the backstage camaraderie of theater folk, and . . . what’s the third thing again? Oh, right, Shakespeare. A few passing nods are tossed at the Arab Spring and oil barons in the Middle East, and Spacey gets a rehearsal laugh by delivering one raspy speech as Bill Clinton (“Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I”). But to place Richard III in the context of our modern world, to solicit a few opinions outside the Spacey Dome—that’s not the assignment for film director Jeremy Whelehan.
That said, after seeing the doc and reading the Richard III reviews online, I wish Seattle had merited a stop on its grand tour. (The play was last mounted locally in 2006 by Seattle Shakespeare Co.) We don’t get to see any full scenes from the production, but Spacey’s usurper has a healthy self-regard, a hammy, canny politician’s sense of projection and (in the early going) a wicked sense of humor. (At one point he attacks Hastings’ severed head in a box, just to startle the court—See? This is what I’m capable of!) He’s selling an image, like any effective candidate.
More important, the movie’s an advertisement for theater, an argument for doing it big and grand. If I were teaching a high-school drama class, I’d take the kids to see it. If this guy can make it, I’d tell them, so could you. (I mean Richard, of course.) Brian Miller