THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber, based on the Michael Chabon novel
Producers: Michael London, Jason Mercer, Thor Benander, Rawson Thurber
Cast: Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Nick Nolte
U.S.A., 2007, 95 min.
*Based on Michael Chabon's influential novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh seductively captures that moment when getting derailed from complacency opens your mind to the endless possibilities life has to offer.
Set in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, the story chronicles the last true summer of Art Bechstein's youth. Stuck in a dead-end job working for his eccentric sometime-girlfriend, and forced into an endless series of airless dinners with his mobster father, Art begins to believe that perhaps he doesn't even exist at all.
What begins as a mundane summer is quickly interrupted when he encounters a beautiful debutante and her lusty boyfriend. Together they reveal a side of Art—and Pittsburgh—that he has never known. As the summer boils on and their adventures darken, Art decides to risk everything to preserve his newfound paradise: he thrusts himself headlong into the blurring boundaries of family, friendship, and love.
Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber and his immensely gifted cast bring Chabon's pages to life with passion, humor, and pathos, wholly capturing the joys and pains that come with encountering people who change your life forever. This movie, a stunning study of human interaction and liberation, is for anyone who has ever been rocked—for a moment or for a lifetime—by someone truly extraordinary.
*Summary by Trevor Groth, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
Literary adaptations are always tricky and Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a perfect example of a talented director tackling a difficult book with the best of intentions, and failing to make the transition seem necessary. Sometimes books should stay as books, without the stigma of having a poor movie attached to it. Pittsburgh isn’t all that bad, but there are times when scenes in the movie come off as jarring, when in the Michael Chabon novel, they may have come off as whimsical. The narrative flow of a book is very different from that of a film and by being too slavish to the events in a book, the film can fall apart. Another film at Sundance this year, Choke was successful because it took pieces of the novel it was based on and came up with its own rhythm. Pittsburgh is, perhaps, too in awe of the Chabon novel, too dedicated to following each beat and twist.
Part of the problem is that the film is based around a wholly clichéd and boring character. I’m not sure if it is the actor, Jon Foster, playing the lead, Art Bechstein, or the writing of his character. I’m sure the book (which I have not yet read), is filled with pages of Art’s inner monologue, but what comes across in the film is a bland, spoiled, Graduate-clone. I feel like I have seen this triangle before: the inexperienced and naïve youth, corrupted by an older rebellious man, usually dating a stunningly attractive and wild woman. I was waiting for the plot to show me something new in this group dynamic, but I was bored with how Art eventually sleeps with Sienna Miller’s character, Jane, and how Peter Sarsgaard’s Cleveland, got angry about it. There was a fascinating homosexual dynamic between Art and Cleveland that would have been interesting to explore if it hadn’t come out of nowhere and then been dropped at the end of the film. In the epilogue, Art and Jane somehow find a way not to be together even though it makes perfect sense for Art to still want to be with Jane! With how their characters were established, Art and Jane would definitely have ended up together, so it was frustrating to see the plot force this separation just to close the film on a poignant note of lost love.
Sienna Miller has begun to grow on me. I abhorred her performance in last year’s Interview, but since, I have seen her become a much more subtle actress, unafraid of letting a moment be simple. My favorite scenes in the film were the dinner scenes between Art and his father, played by Nick Nolte. These scenes were extremely well-written, filled with tension and subtle barbs. Nolte comes across as a ferocious mobster, and I wasn’t sure whether it was more dangerous to be loved or hated by this man. The last dinner scene, with Nolte, Art, and Jane was fantastic. Art runs from the table after a particularly nasty comment from Nolte and Jane follows after him. Before Jane gets up, she locks eyes with Nolte’s character for a few seconds. She doesn’t say anything, it looks like she is simultaneously sizing him up and shaming him. It’s just a look, but damn, it is intense, you can feel an actress coming into her prime. I wish the entire movie could have been about these three interacting.
Peter Sarsgaard was good, but I’ll admit to getting tired of seeing this character from him. I feel like he could play the rebellious, dangerous, temperamental Cleveland in his sleep. He is getting pigeon-holed in roles and I would love to see him try something different. Though I did really like his entrance in the film, his Darth Vader-ed hell rider costume was hilarious. The last third of movie was concerned with Cleveland’s bad business dealings with Nolte’s mobster. Pittsburgh really comes off he rails in this part, suddenly it becomes a thriller, and events happen completely randomly. The most ridiculous scene at Sundance this year was when the new boyfriend of Art’s ex-girlfriend suddenly stops by Art’s apartment to kick the crap out of him, for no reason whatsoever. In fact, this guy nearly kills Art and seems to exist just for the deux ex machina, Cleveland, to come in and save Art.There are a lot of problems with Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I have to give it a good rating because of those dinner scenes and Sienna Miller. I also like exploring new places through film, and I have a certain fondness for Pittsburgh. The cinematography is gorgeous, not what one would expect from a depiction of the Steel City. An interesting example of what happens when a literary adaptation just doesn’t work despite best intentions; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a mess with a few scenes that nearly save it.