A sloppy adaptation and poor lead performances cost The Mysteries of Pittsburgh a chance at arthouse success

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

on March 29, 2009 by Steve Ramos
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Well-known cast members Nick Nolte, Mena Suvari and Peter Sarsgaard, and a story adapted from Michael Chabon's acclaimed coming-of-age novel, provide plenty of audience-friendly appeal for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber's artful follow-up to his slapstick studio hit Dodgeball. Poor performances by lesser-known co-leads Jon Foster and Sienna Miller, and sporadic storytelling with only a sliver of the emotional depth of Chabon's beloved book, wipes away any positives and leaves The Mysteries of Pittsburgh with modest box office potential at best. Without strong critical word-of-mouth or an extensive marketing campaign, Peace Arch, which purchased Mysteries of Pittsburgh following its debut at 2008's Sundance Film Festival, can expect small audiences of mature arthouse devotees familiar with Chabon's novel when the film begins its platform release April 10.

Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is a wayward college grad back home in early '80s Pittsburgh and stuck between the career plans laid out by his mobster father (Nick Nolte) and a meaningless retail job at a local bookstore with his not-too-serious girlfriend (Mena Suvari). A much-needed spark occurs after meeting pretty Jane Bellweather (Sienna Miller) and her petty thug boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Over a summer spent with Jane and Cleveland, Art experiences love, heartbreak and finally independence, everything necessary for adulthood.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh 's coming-of-age themes draw comparisons to countless films from The Graduate to Wes Anderson's Rushmore, but the film falls short against many films in the genre. Thurber, who showed a skill for comedy in both Dodgeball and his 2002 short film Terry Tate: Office Linebacker, is less successful here, dealing with youth melodrama and romance. While Thurber's dramatic storytelling needs vast improvement, his technical skills are solid, with Mysteries of Pittsburgh claiming the visual polish of a plush studio release. Cameraman Michael Barrett makes beautiful use of the Pittsburgh locations, especially an abandoned steel mill that plays a pivotal role in the movie. Production designer Maher Ahmad keeps the ’80s period details believable.

Foster fails to connect as Art, an ordinary guy when it comes to uncertainty about life after college, but someone with a colorful, extraordinary family life. Miller stumbles badly as Jane, the most important character in the movie and the object of Art's longing. Miller is pretty to watch with her freckly cheeks and strawberry blonde hair, especially in an erotic striptease she performs in front of a bedazzled Art. When the film turns more serious and Miller needs to make an emotional connection with Art, she loses her footing and the film quickly dissolves. Sarsgaard, normally reliable, is miscast as Cleveland. Sarsgaard thrives in more intellectual roles and fails to capture Cleveland's thuggish behavior.

In the film's brief bright spots, Nick Nolte makes the most of his small role as Art's father, a dangerous man happy to use his criminal influences against his son. Mena Suvari, as Art's casual girlfriend, provides the film's best performance, a perfect balance of goofiness and heartbreak, an eccentric worthy of Chabon's writing.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh 's greatest assets are its acclaimed source novel and Nolte and Suvari as supporting leads. Marketing campaigns that draw comparisons to popular coming of age dramas will help the film's chances in the marketplace, but they can't compensate for poor word of mouth.
For Thurber, Mysteries of Pittsburgh stands as a glaring reminder that comic filmmaking may be his forte, a reason to return to comic storytelling if he wants a successful directing career.

Distributor: Peace Arch
Cast: Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari and Nick Nolte
Director/Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Producers: Groundswell Productions
Genre: Coming of Age Drama
Rating: R for violence, adult situations
Running time: 95 min
Release Date: March 27 NY, April 10 SF

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