Here’s the big mystery of Pittsburgh: How did this movie manage to be so completely terrible? Based on a novel by Michael Chabon (which I have been told is quite excellent), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh may end up being a serious contender for worst of fest.
The film is ostensibly set in the summer of 1983, but there’s so little period detail that it barely even makes a difference (it’s possible that if the film is bought – and lord I hope it isn’t – some money will be spent on adding period music cues… or changing the completely out of place techno song that plays over a completely out of place car chase). Art Blechstein is the son of a gangster (Nick Nolte, rasping so badly that it made my throat hurt) and he has just graduated from college. He’s studying for the Series Seven, an exam that would allow him to become a stockbroker, a job he doesn’t want, and then in the fall he’s going to get some job with his uncle. Art’s father wants his son to stay away from the crime biz, but Art falls in with a cellist and her bisexual boyfriend, who does some sort of unnamed work for the mob and who has some pretty serious gambling debts. Together they have an adventurous summer that makes for one terrible fucking movie.
Jon Foster, an actor so devoid of charisma that it seems like someone surgically removed his personality, is Art. The film is lifeless and inert from frame one, and it’s not helped by the fact that Foster’s voice over narration sounds like someone reading a grocery list. Sienna Miller is the cellist, and she continues to offer up strong proof that she in fact has no acting talent whatsoever – which is confusing, since she’s so terrific in Steve Buscemi’s remake of Interview. For some reason that’s the only good performance she’s given – is it because Buscemi was able to reach her in a way that other directors have not managed? She does get naked, though, which seems like an obligatory thing for her these days.
Then there’s Peter Sarsgaard. I love Sarsgaard; he’s one of my favorite actors, and I just find him a joy to watch. His character, Cleveland, is the sexually ambiguous, debauched gambler, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s constantly hamstrung by the script and his fellow actors. You can see Foster sucking the very charm from Sarsgaard, and the character of Cleveland is often tedious – you have him figured out from his first scene, and there are not many layers added after that.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins dull, but to its credit it slowly becomes baffling. Rawson Marshall Thurber – the man behind Dodgeball: The Movie! – apparently wants to change up the tone of the film, but he does it so ineptly that it feels like a number of different movies have been sewn together. Here’s the coming of age dramedy, here’s the learning about your sexuality film, here’s the wacky getting fucked up as youths film, here’s the gangster picture and car chase movie (!). Someone at the screening I attended said it felt like the director sat on a remote control and kept changing the channel. In more talented hands this could have perhaps worked, but Thurber makes an annoying mish mash of a movie, one that just doesn’t know what it wants to be. One subplot has Art Blandstein sleeping with the manager at his summer job; when things go badly it’s not clear if we’re meant to be laughing at or with the manager, played with frightening-eyed intensity by Mena Suvari. I honestly am not sure if Thurber knows.
It’s standard practice to walk out of bad films at Sundance; I’ve seen a lot of people just pick up and leave in the middle of a movie (Downloading Nancy, review forthcoming, had them dropping like flies). I stuck it out with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh because I realized that if I left I could never in good conscience write a full review to let you know how much I loathed this film, how much every frame of it was like a personal affront. I have been sitting here in front of my laptop trying to think of one moment, one scene, one line that connected with me, that worked, that alleviated my suffering for even a moment. I can’t. There are none. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a failure, a disaster, a joke whose punchline is making you sit through it all.