Peter Sarsgaard as Cleveland, with Sienna Miller as Jane and Jon Foster (in background) as Art, in Rawson Marshall Thurber's "The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh",
which opened today in numerous select U.S. cities including Chicago and San Francisco.  The film is based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Michael Chabon.  (Photo: Peace Arch Entertainment)

The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh

Oh What A Night: Coming Of Age In A 1980s Summer In Pittsburgh
By Omar P.L. Moore/   SHARE
Friday, April 10, 2009

Opening today in select cities in the U.S. and Canada, "The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh", a coming-of-age drama based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, has everything going for it: a reasonably good assemblage of performers anchored by the always great Peter Sarsgaard, exquisite cinematography (Michael Barrett), a beautiful music score (Theodore Shapiro) and natural and iconic locations and landmarks in the Pennsylvania town of Pittsburgh.  What Rawson Marshall Thurber's film lacks however, is a strong screenplay making the characters he shapes compelling enough for anything more than a cursory interest for the audience. 

The film, shot over several weeks in 2006, takes place in the summer in the early 1980s and begins with a golden nostalgic shot of a rotunda door spinning, accompanied by narration from a young 20-something man named Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), who talks about the time of his life in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1983 or thereabouts.  Since his mother's death Art has had a distant and tense relationship (mainly at a swanky restaurant) with his terse father Joseph (Nick Nolte, wearing hard-boiled indignation on his face almost throughout.)  Joseph is a mobster who is the titular head of a crime family, settling scores and doing "jobs" -- something Art is in need of.  A permanent job on Wall Street as a stock broker is Art's reluctant ambition.  With on-and-off girlfriend Phlox (Mena Suvari), who is also Art's boss at his summer job at The Book Barn, a headquarters for their frequent sexual interludes, Art barely has a pulse or purpose in life until he is introduced at a party by a drug-supplying friend (Obid Abtahi) to an alluring socialite and alcoholic named Jane (Sienna Miller, "Factory Girl".)

"The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh", a 2008 Sundance entry hewn into three summer months of the "me decade", achieves a sense of glory and wonderment in the way it is shot and in Mr. Sarsgaard's mastery of a complex, untamed character in Cleveland -- perhaps the name is a running joke about the city just across the Pennsylvania state border but Cleveland is impulsive and unpredictable -- a man Art has strong loyalties to.  Yet the screenplay written by Mr. Thurber, a San Francisco-born filmmaker who directed the film "Dodgeball" several years ago, lacks an edge not only in aspects of character development but also in structure.  The film's actors do what they can but the situations, including a subplot about running afoul of a group of gangsters, feel forced and unconvincing.  There's a faint homage to "White Heat" (1949), the James Cagney classic gangster thriller, and at least one of Mr. Thurber's characters evokes a energy and mentality recalling Mr. Cagney's character's sheer force of will.  Cleveland's ties to Jane are volatile and the three lives of Art, Cleveland and Jane intersect in a significant way, in a summer, narrates lead character Art, that was the only real summer of his life. 

There's a sense of "American Beauty" in "Mysteries" not necessarily due to Ms. Suvari's presence but because traces of Mr. Shapiro's effective music bring to mind Thomas Newman's signature score in Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning film.  Miss Miller does well as an unbalanced person caught in a place she doesn't deserve to be in.  More intelligent a character than the script shows, Jane is passionate, strong and definitive.  While Mr. Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry", "Shattered Glass", "Kinsey") is excellent as Cleveland, Mr. Foster has the most difficult task, having to play the son, student, curiosity-seeker and boyfriend -- all with a straight face, anything but easy, particularly in this film.  His expressively blank slate look represent Art well, and although I haven't read Mr. Chabon's novel you get a sense of the grim edges of melodrama and sporadic piercing of the surface, if not overall satisfaction with Mr. Thurber's film adaptation.

"The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong sexuality, nudity and language.  The film's duration is one hour and 35 minutes.  The film opened today in Chicago and San Francisco, among other U.S. cities.


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