Entertainment Magazine

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Posted on the 24 July 2014 by Christopher Saunders
The Mysteries of PittsburghI confess that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh's charms elude me: Michael Chabon's debut novel is a convoluted coming-of-age story crammed with snotty characters and insufferable prose. Credit Rawson Marshall Thurber for turning an overrated book into a terrible movie.
Mysteries follows Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) drifting through post-grad life. His dad (Nick Nolte) is a Mafia big-shot who's lined up a stockbroking job. Art works at a bookstore, sleeping with his boss Phlox (Mena Suvari), while studying for an economics exam. Then he falls in with Cleveland (Paul Sarsgaard), a charming small-time hood, and his violinist girlfriend Jane (Sienna Miller). The trio become inseparable, Art becoming attracted to both Cleveland and Jane with disastrous consequences.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh starts with a flawed source and amplifies its faults. The characterization confuses weirdness for depth. Cleveland's the kind of existential douchebag beloved by indie fiction, spouting halfwit aphorisms ("We're all doomed, Art. That's the point") as original as they are profound. Phlox's inexplicable transition from merely horny to lovestruck loon completely derails that subplot. These cartoon caricatures might work in a comedy but Mysteries is deadly earnest, convinced its boneheaded epigrams are deep, man.
Thurber's script drifts pointlessly between scenes, generating neither narrative momentum or incidental interest. Our protagonists' activities and outrages (downing whiskey at a punk club, shooting beer cans with BB guns) feel remarkably tame, making Garden State's abyss-shouting feel positively outre. Art's crushingly literal narration doesn't help. After shuffling through tones and moods throughout, Mysteries unaccountably ends with a car chase. What the hell, guys?
Fans of the novel won't like Mysteries either. Thurber rejiggers the narrative and excises one major character (Arthur, Art's lover) entirely. Chabon's exploration of Art's shifting personal/sexual identity devolves into a rote love triangle; here he's a passive blank slate, inexplicably attracted to weirdos. And where Chabon made Pittsburgh integral to his story (what other novel utilizes the Hillman Library?), the film might as well be set in Detroit or L.A. or Podunk for how blandly the city's used.
Jon Foster is a complete nonentity, exhibiting little talent and no charisma. Peter Sarsgaard plays Cleveland as a surly prick, while Sienna Miller is wonderfully vacuous. But Mena Suvari wins the booby prize, handling Phlox's wild personality shifts with mad overacting. Only Nick Nolte emerges unscathed, dialing down his manic persona into focused intensity.

At best, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh seems the bastard cousin of two much-better films. Specifically Adventureland and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, two Pittsburgh-set coming-of-age dramas with likeable characters, real emotion and good sense of place. Mysteries offers only chintzy dialogue, shots of the Hot Metal Bridge and a character named Phlox. Pass.

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