Peace Arch Entertainment // 2008 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 10th, 2009
Sometimes life leads you to the most mysterious places.
Although he worked far from the Manhattan milieu of the Literary Brat Pack, Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh shares much in common with the first novels of literary icons Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Those novels, Less than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City, share with Mysteries a young male (semi-autobiographical) protagonist, sexually ambivalent, on the cusp of adulthood embroiled in a world of sex, drugs, and daddy issues. Unlike Ellis and McInerney, Chabon did not see his first novel turned into a monument to '80s cinema. Instead, his first work to make it to the big screen was his second novel, Wonder Boys, a tough act to follow. Now, almost ten years after Wonder Boys was critically acclaimed, and twenty years after the book was published, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is finally seeing the light of cinematic day. Although it hosts a number of excellent performances, Mysteries is shackled by a script that can't quite capture the raw beauty of Chabon's prose.
Just having graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, Art Bechstein (Jon Foster, Thirteen Days) is looking forward to his last summer of irresponsibility before his gangster father (Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder) forces him into a dead-end corporate job. He works at the Bargain Barn bookstore, where he's also sleeping with his boss, Phlox (Mena Suvari, American Beauty). Through a mutual friend, Art falls into a relationship with lovers Jane (Sienna Miller, Factory Girl) and Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard, Garden State). Things begin to get complicated when Art starts to fall in love with both of them.
Adapting a novel is a tricky thing. It's so easy to lose everything wonderful about the source in the transition from page to film. It's also arguable that certain literary effects are impossible to replicate well on screen, like mood and first-person narration. Certainly The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a difficult case. Although it's centered around a single character in a single summer, it's narrated by Art and includes a whole host of secondary characters, including at least three characters that Art is romantically/sexually involved in. Then, there's the beautiful tone that Chabon evokes with his prose, part desperate cling to adolescence and part stoic acquiescence to the necessity of adulthood. It's no surprise that it took twenty years for the book to get made into a film.
Sadly, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (of Dodgeball fame) isn't quite up to the task of turning Chabon's book into a successful screenplay. The first problem is a lack of narrative drive. Part of the point of the book was the aimlessness of Art's existence, his attempts to stop time so he didn't have to grow up. The film sort of attempts that kind of narrative trick, but also uses several devices, like Cleveland's debts and Art's stockbroker exams, as means to drive the plot forward, and it just doesn't work. Stuff just seems to happen, willy nilly, without either the pleasure of dissipation or drive towards a certain goal.
What we're left with is a character study of a group of twentysomethings living unfulfilling lives in the wilds of Pittsburgh. That wouldn't be so bad, if it were possible to care about any of the characters even a little bit. Art seems like a nice enough guy, but his indecision and inaction make him a less than compelling protagonist. Phlox is a one-note harpy who seems to willfully misunderstand her relationship with Art. Jane could have been interesting, but it seems like the more we know about her the less we understand and she's left as a kind of cipher by the film's end. Finally, there's Cleveland, a borderline sociopath with a death wish. That would normally make him an interesting character, but he's such an unrepentant ass I couldn't have cared less.
Despite the dearth of sympathetic or interesting characters, the acting on display is top-notch. Much of the film is highly tense and/or emotional, so the actors get a chance to run through their paces. Jon Foster is appropriately ambivalent about everything as Art, while Mena Suvari sinks her teeth into Phlox and makes her mildly funny despite her character flaws. Sienna Miller shows all the right emotions as Jane, although I got the sense she could have kicked it up a notch. Nick Nolte is at his gravelly voiced best as Art's gangster father, lording over his son with tyrannical abandon. However, the supreme performance of the film, the one that almost makes the film worth just for it, is Peter Sarsgaard's portrayal of Cleveland. He's a loutish, repugnant guy, but Sarsgaard makes him burn with the best doomed wandering poets. In the best way possible he reminded me often of a young John Malkovich, and he kept the film generally interesting despite the poor narrative flow.
This Blu-ray release also deserves some credit. Mysteries of Pittsburgh was an independent production, but despite the smaller budget this release looks pretty good. The video suffers from a bit of overzealous noise reductions, and a lack of detail, but colors are strong throughout. The audio keeps the dialogue crisp and clear, which is essential for a film of this type. Extras include two featurettes. The first is a behind-the-scenes look at the film featuring interviews with the director interspersed with video from the set. The second is a bit longer and focuses on the transition from novel to film, including comments by Michael Chabon. He seems happy with the adaptation (although this was obviously filmed before he saw the final product), and so does the rest of the cast and crew interviewed. The disc closes with the film's trailer.
Fans of Michael Chabon's first novel are more than likely going to be disappointed by this adaptation. Even excellent central performances can't save a screenplay that lacks the drive or the depth of Chabon's original. Although this is a decent Blu-ray release, I can only recommend a rental to diehard Chabon fans or serious fans of any of the main cast.
There's no mystery about it: Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R