Dir: Rawson Marshall Thurber. US. 2008. 95mins
Pittsburgh in 1983 is the setting of this coming of age based on Michael Chabon's novel about a young man, entangled in affairs, breaks free from the rule of his mafia-boss father in the first summer of his adult life. A genre that's as common as snow at Sundance, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh may draw Chabon's many readers to the box office but the smothering adaptation is likely to disappoint them.
Stars Nick Nolte and Sienna Miller could also build an audience although Miller hardly made the the film's location very appealing by calling it 'Shitsburgh' during the shoot. Interest will be limited outside the US and especially outside English-speaking countries.
As adapted by Thurber, who debuted as a director with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), the script streamlines the criss-crossing plots and consolidates characters in the 1989 novel, losing the interior monologues and adding Pittsburgh locations, which are shot affectionately by Michael Barrett.
A first person narration from Art Bechstein (Foster) opens and ends the film with tense restaurant meetings with stern father Joe Bechstein (Nolte) dividing up the eventful summer. Under Thurber's direction, 1983 Pittsburgh has the gentility and the rawness of a steel town of an earlier era, as if someone who read Fitzgerald or Hemingway had imagined it. An abandoned rusted mill, where Art goes from time to time, is a reminder of grittier days. Yet the feel of the film, with its warm, genteel interiors (thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad), makes you think more of the 1920's. Bear in mind that 1983 was the year of Flashdance, the Cinderella story that fore-grounded then-depressed Pittsburgh. You'd never know that we were in the same downtrodden place.
At the core of the story is Art, and Foster plays the role like an unworldly protected boy who leaps at a chance to chafe against the real world outside his father's grip. He takes a minimum wage job at the Book Barn, and immediately (in the film's compressed shorthand) begins an affair with his randy boss Phlox (Suvari) who demands sex in every corner of the store.
Art then meets Jane Bellwether (Miller), a beguiling blonde violinist, whose boyfriend Cleveland Arning (Sarsgaard) is good company for carousing. He is also a wise guy for a local mobster as well as being bisexual. Art falls for Jane and Cleveland. We follow all of this in between his studying sessions for graduate school and stiff awkward dinners with his tyrant of a father, who eventually comes between him and Cleveland.
Thurber's cast is adequate to the job - Foster is innocent and game for experience as Art, Miller is cute, drunk and mercurial as Jane and Sarsgaard is likeably self-destructive, but simply unbelievable as a mob underling, more Withnail and I than Goodfellas. Nolte plays to type as the well-dressed mob chief, brimming with violent rage, who seeks respectability for his son. The few scenes with his gangster entourage look like television cliches at their worst.
Over-compressed and unoriginal, Thurber's movie of Chabon's novel has turned an imaginative book into ordinary cinema. Pittsburgh must have more magical mysteries than this.
Arclight Films (US)
Groundswell Productions (US)
Sherezade Film Development (US)
(1) 310 777 8855
Jason Ajax Mercer
Glenn M Stewart
Rawson Marshall Thurber