By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When "Mad Men" star John Slattery chose to direct his first film, he moved a world away from Manhattan's Madison Avenue to ponder the plight of the working class in "God's Pocket," featuring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles.
Best known as silver-haired playboy Roger Sterling on AMC's hit 1960s ad-world drama "Mad Men," the 51-year-old Slattery recruited Hoffman and "Mad Men" co-star Christina Hendricks for his tale of a man down on his luck in a blue-collar enclave.
"God's Pocket" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in limited U.S. theaters on Friday.
Slattery adapted the script from a 1983 novel of the same name by Pete Dexter, drawn to "how people behave in a fishbowl" like God's Pocket, located on the gritty outskirts of South Philadelphia, where everyone's history is embedded in the small neighborhood.
The portrayal of the seedy community is infused with black comedy moments as fights break out, from long-stewing grudges to alcohol-fueled fisticuffs.
"There's a fatalistic sense of humor that all these people have because they know everything," Slattery said. "That dark sense of humor in conjunction with the sort of heavy circumstances of what happens I found very appealing."
In the late 1970s, a young man who is a racist is killed at a construction site, and his stepfather, Mickey (Hoffman), finds himself stuck with the body because he can't afford the burial.
As Mickey races against time to raise funeral funds with the body of his stepson hidden in the back of his freezer van, his wife, Jeannie (Hendricks), mourns her son's death and turns to a veteran alcoholic newspaper columnist to get answers, only to find the reporter has other things on his mind.
Jeannie is frustrated by never getting answers to her son's death from a community where she knows everyone.
"These people are all keeping a secret, hiding something, lying to her, and it makes you feel like you're going crazy," Hendricks said.
The character of Mickey sees Hoffman in one of his final on-screen roles before his sudden death at the age of 46 from an accidental heroin overdose last February. His loss was mourned by the acting world, who praised his versatility and mesmerizing performances on both screen and stage.
"One of the reasons he was so attracted to Mickey was that he thought he was such a good man," Hendricks said.
"You look at the circumstances of this character and he could seem like a loser, non-communicator, a drunk and all these different things, but Phil saw this man as a good man, he was just trying to do right, and he approached it in that way."
The film has garnered mixed reviews, scoring 48 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic.com. Stephen Holden of The New York Times criticized the film's "facade of meanspirited deadpan comedy," but praised Hoffman, along with co-stars John Turturro and Domenick Lombardozzi, for delivering "solid performances."
Both Slattery and Hendricks remembered Hoffman fondly, with the actress calling him "very kind and dedicated and passionate, and funny -- very, very funny." The director called Hoffman "compassionate," and credited his involvement as both actor and producer on "God's Pocket" for getting the film made.
"If you get someone of that stature to say 'yes,' then doors open. He was not only right for the role but he's also a star of a certain magnitude," Slattery said.
"As soon as Phil said yes, everyone else lined up like that, he's just the kind of person everyone wants to work with."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler)