August 12, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***

When Michael Chabon had his first novel –"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" – published in 1988, it created a literary sensation, became a best-seller and sent the young author onwards toward a major career, which he has sustained to this day. Because of the gay and bisexual references in that novel, the author’s initial fan base was perhaps wider than it might have been otherwise, but the sense of young adults experimenting with “forbidden fruit,” from crime to transgressive sex seemed just that: experimentations that may or may not prove conclusive. The widely-panned-upon-release movie version of the novel turns out to be better than expected, due in some part to a deserved backlash against those negative reviews but just as much to the charismatic performances from two of its three leads, and a nicely understated one from the other. For me, these characters proved more involving on-screen than on-page. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is no gem, but it’s no disaster, either. Basically a coming-of-age story, it traffics in cliché but dresses its characters and situations in enough new clothes and conceits to make them live and shine – at least for the 95-minute running time.

I have to admit to not being overawed by the novel itself, which I read when it was first published. I found it a little tiring and had to keep goosing myself back into paying attention. As I closed the final page, I remember shrugging and wondering, What’s the big deal? This may account for my taking more pleasure in the film, which has been adapted and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (who earlier gave us the very dumb Dodgeball). Here, he’s made some smart elisions (of characters and events) and cast a raft of good looking actors to bring the characters to life. Peter Sarsgaard plays the role of the smart, literate and self-destructive biker boyfriend of the beautiful girl (Sienna Miller), on whom our “hero,” played by Jon Foster (The Door in the Floor), has his first big crush. Foster’s crush actually moves back and forth between Miller and Sarsgaard, which keeps everyone -- characters and viewers -- a little off-kilter.

The criminality is provided by both Sarsgaard (he’s a low-level gang member) and Nick Nolte, who, as Foster’s father, proves a higher-level criminal. Mena Suvari handles the other important role: Phlox, Foster’s boss at work, who is also, for lack of anyone else, his sex interest.

The irony of the title – Pittsburgh? Mysteries? Cue the laughter! – is of course that every town, big and small, has its mysteries. Often they’re the same ones, and the solving (or at least the experiencing) of them is how we grow up. It’s here that the movie works best, presenting the city and its surrounding countryside as a place full of wonder and surprise, since Pittsburgh is actually a very interesting place, with some great architecture, fascinating history and a location at the confluence of three rivers that make for terrific scenery. The camera (cinematography by Michael Barrett: Safe Men and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) captures a lot of the beauty and ugliness, as well as the not-quite-yet nostalgic time-frame, two decades back.

Sarsgaard has never given less than a fine performance, which he does once again, with Miller providing the beauty and laid-back angst required. Foster has been deemed by some critics as tiresome and boring, but I disagree. Sure, he’s in the shadow of his two glamorous friends, but that’s how it should be. He gives a very interesting, measured and thoughtful performance, just right for a young man on the cusp of figuring out some of what he’s about. The kingpin/daddy role fits Nolte like a glove, while Suvari, who may be a tad too glamorous for her character, nonetheless does quite a bit with it -- by turns, she’s annoying, funny, sad and on-target.

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Posted by cphillips at August 12, 2009 2:53 PM
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