THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH (2009)
Starring Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Nick Nolte, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Marc Macaulay, Joe Pawlenko, Seth Adams, Aaron Bernard, Katie Jensen, Patrick Jordan, Mark Tierno, Jeremy Moon, David Morse, William Kania, Keith Michael Gregory, Jocelyn Wrzosek and Jeff Hochendoner.
Screenplay by Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Distributed by Peace Arch Entertainment. 95 minutes. Rated R.
Though I haven’t read it in over a decade, Michael Chabon’s 1988 debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is one of my favorite books. (Just for the record – not that it has anything to do with this article, but numero uno for me is John Irving’s The World According to Garp.) In the years since then, Chabon has put together a terrific body of work; including novels Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Gentlemen of the Road and even winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Still, twenty-one years after Pittsburgh was released to critical acclaim and rather good sales, it seems surprising that it is just now finally making it to film. The book has been optioned, started, and aborted several times over those years. (Actors such as Kevin Bacon and Eric Stoltz were amongst those supposed to be connected to the title at one point or another.) In fact, in interest of full disclosure, in the late 90s when I was still trying to get a screenwriting career off the ground, a producer I was working with and I contacted Chabon’s people about optioning the book and they were open to exploring the idea, but eventually we decided that while it was a very good piece of literature, it may be too dense and complicated a character study to do real justice to in the confines of a feature film.
Writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber – who is best known for the goofy Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball, of all things – is the one who finally got a labor of love version of the novel to the multiplexes. (Though, after two years sitting on the shelf – it was filmed in 2006 – and now having an extremely limited run planned, unless you live in a big city or there is a miracle, you’ll probably have to wait to catch it on video.)
Thurber has come up with a rather unique way of overcoming the problem of doing the original book justice – by pretty much ignoring the original storyline and main characters except for in the broadest strokes.
In fairness to Thurber, Chabon was apparently involved in the filming and did not have a big problem with the wholesale changes that the movie made with his story and characters – including nearly completely overlooking two of the most important people in the book.
If the writer is willing to let go, I suppose that we, the readers, should also be as open-minded. However, I have to admit, watching The Mysteries of Pittsburgh as someone who is familiar with the original novel is a rather frustrating exercise.
One vitally important character is completely written out – or at least ham-handedly merged into another surviving character – and the other character goes from a huge place in the story to being a minor and annoying part. (Her role is also merged slightly with other characters in the book).
In fact, the relationship between the main character Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) and a couple of free spirits, Cleveland and Jane (Peter Sarsgaard and Sienna Miller) did not even start until about halfway into the novel. The character of Cleveland is the merge – many of his character traits are based on the disappeared character of Arthur Lecomte. (Yes, the book had two major characters named Arthur. What of it?) Therefore, the entire first half of the book is essentially untapped.
I understand that fans of most novels which are adapted for screen feel the same way. Also, in fairness to the film, it sort of captures the general vibe of the book. However, in many ways this is a different story – and frankly, not as good of one.
In fact, it seems that the filmmakers have sapped the story of just about everything that made it whimsical or unique, coming out with a rather formulaic indie-movie-love-triangle-template plot with a bisexual twist. (And a bisexual twist itself is not all that rare in the indie world.)
So, what is left here?
Not too much. Art is a recent college grad whose father is a local gangster (Nick Nolte). Art doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with his dad, who he keeps at a distance. He certainly doesn’t want to go into the family business. He is actually working hard to get a legit and respectable career as a stockbroker. (Though we may take it as a joke post-Bear Stearns and Enron, this wasn’t merely being ironic in the Wall Street “Greed is good” decade. You got to love the 80s!)
Art meets the bohemian gangsta-wannabe Cleveland and his gorgeous girlfriend and quickly falls in love with both, and essentially sits back and watches as the two drag him deeper into their worlds. Cleveland wants to meet Art’s dad – an idea that Art smartly resists but eventually allows, with somewhat tragic results.
On the plus side, Miller and Sarsgaard are terrific in their roles, certainly overshadowing the somewhat bland work of lead star Foster. (Ironically, Foster is hitting a double dose of bad 80s nostalgic angst as this movie is opening on the same weekend as his lead performance in Bret Easton Ellis’ wretched The Informers.) Mena Suvari is just fine in her role – at least doing what little of the lead character of Phlox that is left over with a certain amount of panache, though only the literary character’s very worst traits are carried over to the movie.
Beyond not living up to its source material, it’s also just The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’s bad timing that it has come out mere weeks after Greg Mottola’s Adventureland – a much savvier and more thoughtful look at growing up in Pittsburgh in the late 80s.
If you have never read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, chances are you may leave the theater thinking this is not a bad movie – though a bit overwrought and a little predictable. If you have read it, you’ll realize that not bad is not nearly good enough.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 24, 2009.