Some excellent books translate equally well onto the silver screen (think: “The Hours,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Fight Club”). Others don’t make the leap, falling well short of the source material (a lá “Running with Scissors” or “Seven Years in Tibet”). However, many book to film renditions languish in the middle ground, not bad enough to eternally embarrass the author but not good enough to earn his praise. And that’s the category “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” settles into—certainly not fantastic, but not quite reprehensible.
Art Bechstien (Jon Foster), son of an infamous mobster, leads a much duller life than his father, so dull, in fact, that he often feels like he is fading into non-existence. As a recent college grad, he figures he has one last summer of freedom before he begins a mind-numbing job crunching numbers at his uncle’s firm. Determined to avoid as much responsibility as possible, he takes a job at the local Book Barn and, out of sheer boredom, starts an affair with his air-headed supervisor, Phlox (Mena Suvari). The summer is pretty much a wash until Art is introduced to Jane (Sienna Miller), a gorgeous blond violinist with whom he shares an innocent piece of pie. The next day, while he is still pondering his evening, Jane’s biker boyfriend arrives and abducts him from the Book Barn. Much to Art’s surprise, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) has benevolent intentions. Cleveland and Jane “adopt” Art, and the three become inseparable, spending the summer in each other’s company.
Based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon’s acclaimed novel of the same name, the film is a coming of age story, but not a terribly interesting one. As narrator and protagonist, Art should capture our attention, but blank-eyed Foster portrays him with all the blandness of white toast; likewise, Miller’s Jane could’ve been replicated by a cookie cutter. Sarsgaard, as Cleveland, is the only actor who brings any semblance of his A-game. He swaggers about with wit and authority– he’s like your favorite slacker friend from high school who will never make it out of his hometown, but who sure is a hell of a lot of fun to visit. Cleveland impishly drags his companions on a series of adventures, but even his energy is not enough to sustain a thin storyline. For what screenwriter and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) has done is to pare from the novel all nuance. What drives these characters? Who knows, for motivation is swept to the wayside. Same goes for the dark themes of sexuality, identity, and betrayal; while they should merit development and reflection, Thurber gives them the barest of nods as he moves the plot along. Finally, time and place play an integral role in Chabon’s work, but here specificity is lost. Though beautifully shot, the tone of the movie feels more like the 1950s of “American Graffiti” than the 1980s it’s supposed to be. As for Pittsburgh itself, save one distinctive power plant, the setting is Anywhere, USA—”Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a greater ode to Chicago than this film is to its namesake.
Disappointed fans of Michael Chabon will have to watch “Wonder Boys” for solace, for “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” boasts only one core mystery: how one can take such promising material and render it completely unmemorable?