The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a low-budget, low-level, low-energy film with some pretty high-profile voices behind it. The film is based on the first book ever-written by the amazing author Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman's Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), was adapted into a feature film and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), and features the gorgeous Sienna Miller (Factory Girl), super-talented Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey), and intriguing Jon Foster (The Door in the Floor). The film struggled in development for years (Jason Schwartzman was nearly attached a few years ago) and finally debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Sometimes when a film takes 15 months to make it from Park City to the rest of the world, it doesn't reflect negatively on the quality of the work (take the recent Sin Nombre or The Great Buck Howard, for example). But, more often than not, a delay of that length after little buzz from the town Robert Redford built happens for a reason. Despite the best of intentions and interesting source material, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a misfire on several levels.
Foster plays Art Bechstein, a kid caught in a post-college crisis of identity. First, his father (Nick Nolte) is a notorious gangster from whose shadow Art is constantly trying to escape. He escapes into a world his pop didn't want him for him, hanging around with a low-level thug with a gambling problem named Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard) and his sexy girlfriend Jane Bellweather (Sienna Miller). Art also deals with a part-time girlfriend named Phlox (Mena Suvari) who also happens to be his boss at his boring day job. Cleveland, Art, and Jane develop an unexpected love triangle with the unsure young man falling for both of them. And yet, for a movie with gangsters and sexually ambiguous characters, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is surprisingly flat. It's as if it was produced from an indie movie textbook. Put a little Ryan Adams and Nick Drake on the soundtrack, include some amazingly self-aware narration, and cast an indie mainstay like Sarsgaard and the movie makes itself, doesn't it?
First and foremost, no movie should be so blatantly narrated. "I guess it all seemed suddenly like an adventure" may work wedged in between Chabon's excellent ear for prose, but it simply does not pass the "show, don't tell" test of cinema. And the narration and even the dialogue of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is FULL of those kinds of self-conscious insights that constantly pull you out of the film and remind you that you're watching a movie that probably worked better as a book. It doesn't help that Foster reads these lines like he's editing a textbook. Art is a difficult role. It's damn-near impossible to command the screen with Nick Nolte playing a gangster and Peter Sarsgaard playing a thug in the same room. But Foster doesn't even try. It's not as if we don't like Art by the end of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but we never even know him. He's a plot device, a black hole of a character that lets the sexy girl, the bisexual thug, and his angry dad steal the show.
And steal they do. As is almost always the case, Nolte and Sarsgaard do things in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh that nearly save the film. Sarsgaard is always great. He just needs a better agent, having not found a role with real impact in five years (since his great work in Kinsey). Even Nolte shows more life than usual. The jury is still out on Miller. She's physically stunning, which makes it easy to see why Art would be drawn to her, but she's sometimes a little dry.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was reportedly a labor of love for Thurber, having tried to get it made for a decade. While it's easy to appreciate someone falling head over heels for one of Chabon's works, not all of your favorite stories should be turned into movies. I'm not familiar with the source material, so maybe it was changed drastically, but whatever the case may be, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh proves that you can have a strong supporting cast and great source material, but if you don't have a charismatic lead and a good screenplay then it will be no mystery as to what the final product will look like.
Rating: TWO BONES