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STUDIO: Peace Arch Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 95 min
- Behind-The-Scenes of The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh
- “Based Upon The Novel By Michael Chabon” Featurette
- Theatrical Trailer
Jon (The Informers, Windfall) Foster, Peter (Garden State, Jarhead) Skarsgaard, Sienna (GI Joe: The Pointless Subtitle, Layer Cake) Miller, Nick (48 Hours, Hulk) Nolte, Mena (American Beauty, American Pie) Suvari
“Hey Antoine, you know Michael Chabon?”
“Pullitzer-winning author, American treasure, produced a whole pile a stories brimming with wit, depth and sophistication?”
“That’s the one. Thinking maybe we should make a movie from one of his books.”
“Well, how ’bout the dullest and least cinematic one?”
“Bing! Pass the hooker.”
A young Everyman finds himself staring down the barrel of a life sentence as a corporate drone until a homoerotic love triangle with a pretty young filly and the loose cannon that porks her jostles him out of complacency. So kind of like Fight Club, without the slathering of insanity to provide the energy, quirk, and satire.
The book was better. That’s what you hear whenever the movie comes out, and although this is a site devoted to the love and jerking-off-to of film, I’m inclined to agree as a rule. The only time the movie is widely acknowledged as better (The Godfather, Jaws, Die Hard) seems to be when the filmmaker plays fast and loose with a source that isn’t all that great to begin with.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is certainly not a bad book, but it is a bildungsroman about a sensitive, bookish, sexually experimental 22 year-old that bears all the signs of being written by a sensitive, bookish, sexually experimental 22 year-old. Such works do not lend themselves easily to screen translations. Too much depends on the unique voice of the narrator to draw us into the mindset of a character who rarely takes an active role in the plot. And no matter how much voice-over is lifted directly from the page, the fact remains that film is not a first-person medium. Descriptions may be eloquent and observations clever, but they aren’t strictly necessary when we can see the people and places for ourselves. The screen provides an independent perspective that can make descriptive narration feel affected. To be fair, the VO by our hero Art Beckstein is hardly oppressive (mostly confined to the opening and closing), but Foster’s flat, lifeless delivery does nothing to counter the feeling that we’re not being told much that we aren’t already being shown. So really, why bother?
The film retains the early 80s setting of the novel to little effect, since the wardrobes are rather timeless and nothing would be substantially changed if the characters had cell phones. But director/writer Rawson Marshal Thurber otherwise gives himself wide leeway in deviating from the text, a wise move with material that’s much heavier on character and tone than plot. The biggest change is to roll a major supporting character completely into Skarsgaard’s self-destructive biker, and frame the film as a love triangle involving him and his girlfriend (Miller), a very minor presence in the book. Beefing up that role usurps much of the function from the Mena Suvari character, reducing her to a one-note, rather mean-spirited joke. Still, these radical changes give the film some needed structure and streamline things enough to focus on the mostly subdued character development and provide a modicum of pacing before the slightly overwrought finale involving Beckstein’s father (Nolte, making an effectively imposing gangster as long as you ignore that he’s technically supposed to be a Jewish mob accountant).
The changes don’t do enough to overcome the problematic protagonist, however. Art is utterly passive, and doesn’t even rise to the level of reacting to the other players so much as simply being acted upon by them. He’s played by a generically handsome actor, but beyond that he never demonstrates any particular humor or intelligence that might suggest why he’s the object of every supporting player’s desire. Foster does perfectly serviceable work, but it would take a genuine movie star to make the character as scripted come alive, and he’s not on that level. I’m all for character studies, but the subject shouldn’t be this bland.
The rest of the performances range from good to quite good. Suvari does what she can with a rather undignified role. Miller is beautiful and acquits herself well outside an American accent that dips Southern at random intervals. And Skarsgaard continues his pattern of being the best thing in bad-to-mediocre movies. Mysteries benefits greatly from his specialized brand of low-key seediness undercut by a sly intelligence, and for every line he utters you can see him thinking and holding back several more. If he were the lead, or had one with real charisma to play off of, the film may have been something special.
As it is, however, it’s a competent and inoffensive 90 minutes that is not going to change anyone’s life. Unless it happens to put you on a Skarsgaard kick, which eventually leads you to Orphan. Then all bets are off.
Transfer, sound, and cover art continue the theme of decent but unimpressive. There’s a couple of featurettes; a puff piece about shooting the negligible “action” sequences, and a brief but interesting look at the process of adapting such difficult material. The most main thing to come out of it is confirmation that Chabon does not hold his own text as sacred, and thoroughly gets that slavish transcription is the worst way to bring words on a page to the screen. It’s just too bad this didn’t lead he and Thurber to find the best way.