The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

© 2008 Ray Wong

After the wonderfully understated Wonder Boys, I was eagerly anticipating the adaptation of author Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, set in the summer of 1983.

Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is a college graduate spending his last summer in Pittsburgh before taking a job as a stockbroker. He secretly despises his father's (Nick Nolte) real job as a gangster and would have nothing to do with that part of his life. He works at an independent bookstore and have a sexual relationship with the manager, Phlox (Mena Suvari). At a party, he meets Jane (Sienna Miller), a young musician with a loose-cannon boyfriend, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard).

Art is immediately smitten by both Jane and Cleveland, who have a tumultuous, on-and-off-again relationship. He starts to hang out with the couple a lot, and develops a not so secret crush on Jane. His crush on Cleveland, however, is rather under the surface. Cleveland would sometimes disappear for days, and Art eventually finds out Cleveland is involved with the "bad crowd," including Art's gangster uncle. He also discovers that Cleveland likes to have his occasional fun with men as well.

Art is ultimately confused about his feelings. He loves being with Cleveland and Jane, but he also respects the boundaries. Meanwhile, his relationship with Phlox has deteriorated. His father's disapproval also grows as Art spends more and more time having fun instead of studying. Soon, Art finds himself crossing the line and getting involved with Cleveland and Jane more deeply than he expected.

Jon Foster (Stay Alive) is wooden and dull as the protagonist and narrator. Granted, his character is more of an observer than the "hero," but still, in a coming-of-age drama, we expect a little more spark from the main character. Foster carries 80% of the film but he lacks the acting abilities to leave a positive impression or bring the character to life. We seldom understand his true motive and emotions; it seems like most of the time he just goes along with the ride.

The rest of the cast includes more seasoned and well-known actors. Peter Sarsgaard (Rendition) tries to be charismatic as the drifter, the central object of Art's affection. Sarsgaard is a good, likable actor, but he lacks the je ne sais quoi to pull off a larger-than-life character such as Cleveland. Not to mention he shares almost no chemistry with anyone else on screen, including costar Sienna Miller (Stardust) as Jane. She is beautiful, but her portrayal of Jane is also dull and uninspired. Is she supposed to be the woman that both men fall for? Why?

Mena Suvari (Factory Girl) has a better time playing Phlox, not because her character is any deeper than the rest, but because she has some of the wittiest lines that resemble Chabon's original writing. Her performance lightens the otherwise monotonous plot. Nick Nolte (Tropic Thunder) reminds us why he's one of the best actors of his generation. As Art's gangster father, he gives possibly the best, heartfelt performance of the entire film.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), the script is disjointed and episodic, but that's the only thing that matches Chabon's languid, lyrical novel. Thurber is an odd choice to write and direct such literary material to begin with. Unfortunately, he can't rise from his limitations. In the process, he utterly butchers Chabon's book. First, he eliminates one of the book's most endearing characters, Arthur. He then reduces Phlox to a comic relief. He also forgoes what's made the book so endearing: Art's friendship with the people he meets during that summer. Instead, Thurber focuses on Art, Cleveland and Jane.

That alone wouldn't have ruined the story had Thurber taken care of developing the characters more fully and given them better motivations and depths. Instead, he keeps the episodic nature of the story. What comes out of that is a disjointed screenplay with baffling behaviors that come out of nowhere. For example, one minute Cleveland is the most charming and lovable person and he and Jane hit it off beautifully, and then the next minute he and Jane are at each other's throats and Cleveland turns into a huge jerk. There is no rhyme and reason, and we're left to take Art's attraction to them as gospel. I don't buy it.

Not to mention the characters are dull, and the treatment lacks Chabon's lyrical quality. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a character study and a coming of age story. Thurber lacks the ability to give the film a true literary take that is worthy of the original material. Not to mention the main actors lack chemistry. We never really feel the connections between them, let alone being convinced they're in love with one another. That leads to some of the film's most uncomfortable and laughable moments, which should have been poignant, erotic, and complex.

As a rabid fan of Chabon's literary work, I feel especially betrayed and disappointed. The film is set in Pittsburgh, but it hardly shows off the city as the novel did. Even if you're not familiar with the book, you'll understand what I'm talking about when you witness the disjointed, out of character portrayal of these relationships that are central to the story. I really wanted to love the film. So it shouldn't come as a mystery how much I actually dislike it.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Jon Foster, Nick Nolte, Omid Abtahi
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writers: Rawson Marshall Thurber (based on Michael Chabon's novel)
Distributor: Arclight Flims
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, violence, and nudity
Running Time: 95 Minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 5.4 out of 10

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