Tuesday, August 11, 2009

DVD Views: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Mysteries of Pittsburg **
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Written By: Rawson Marshall Thurber based on the book by Michael Chabon.
Starring: Jon Foster (Art Bechstein), Sienna Miller (Jane Bellwether), Peter Sarsgaard (Cleveland Arning), Mena Suvari (Phlox Lombardi), Nick Nolte (Joseph Bechstein), Omid Abtahi (Momo).

Michael Chabon is one of the best authors working right now, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not one of his best books. Written in university for an assignment, the book is a fine, little novel about the coming of age of a young man during the summer right after he graduates university. Over the course of the summer, he will work through his sexual confusion, try and distance himself from his father, get involved with some people he probably shouldn’t, and essentially grows up. It is a good little novel, but nothing you have not read a thousand times before. With the vast majority of Chabon’s great work still waiting to be turned into a movie, it strikes me as sort of strange that someone would want to turn The Mysteries of Pittsburgh into a movie. It strikes me as even stranger that in doing so, the filmmakers would eliminate the novel’s best character.

But a book is a book and a movie is a movie, and they have to each work on their own terms. Unfortunately for the film adaptation of Chabon’s book, it simply does not work. What was in the book a quietly touching exploration of a sensitive, confused young man’s coming of age comes across on screen as the inane, pretentious ramblings of a whiner. And because we do not like the main character, Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), the rest of the cast's strange attraction to him seems odd. We never get involved in these characters lives, and honestly, we do not much care what happens to them. That is death for a character based movie like this. I must admit that the other characters fare better than the lead does, but because he is such a whiner and is at the heart of the movie, we do wonder why everyone else in the film seems to gravitate towards him.

The film is about Art in the summer after he graduated from university with a degree in economics. His father (Nick Nolte) is a gangster, but he does not want Art involved in that part of his life. He has used his contacts to get Art a good job starting in September. Art just has to make it three months until then. He decides to use “the last summer of my life” to essentially do nothing. He takes a job at the Book Barn, starts sleeping with his boss (Mena Suvari), and essentially hanging out and getting drunk a lot. This is how he meets Jane (Sienna Miller), who he immediately falls for, and her boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), a low level gangster himself, who is an irresponsible mess of a person. He and Jane essentially spend all of their time either arguing or fucking. Art likes both of them, but cannot decide which one he likes more. He wants to fuck both of them himself.

The movie moves at the slow, languid pace of summer, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film is essentially made up of one conversation after another, all involving Art, and normally just one of the other characters in the movie. My problem with the movie is that most of the characters are fairly well defined, with the exception of Art. We, like Art, are drawn to Jane’s beauty and intelligence. We like Cleveland, in spite of ourselves, much like Art does. We feel bad for Suvari’s character, because she obviously took their relationship much more seriously than Art did, and when he inevitably breaks her heart, it’s painful. We even get to understand Nolte’s gangster, if not really like him. He is a hard man, but he really does have the best interest of his kid at heart. This is the type of role that Nolte can play in his sleep, but here he doesn’t. He gives the gangster a quiet authority, that can be quite scary, even if he really is not saying anything all that mean, and he never raises his voice. When Art makes the decision he does at the end of the movie (and the book for that matter), I had a hard time excepting it. His father may not be a great man, but he deserves better than what he gets.

But I keep coming back to the same problem with the movie, and that is that Art is such a thoroughly boring, uninteresting character, that it feels like the movie has a gaping hole in the center of it. The problem is a combination of Foster’s way too mild performance, and writing that does nothing to make us care for him. The writer/director of the movie is Rawson Thurber Marshall, who made the hilarious Dodgeball a few years ago. He probably wanted to be taken more seriously as a filmmaker, so he decided to tackle this project. But he never really finds his way into the movie. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not a terrible movie, but it is one that I found unsatisfying. There is good stuff around the edges, but the core of the movie just is not very good.

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