Why is summer the season of change? Really, think about the number of films about transformative summers, from the iconic Summer of ’42, to the ridiculous Summer School, to the recent Adventureland. A lot happens during those few months when wearing white is acceptable. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is yet another film to embrace this theme, but with one huge failing: If you never get to know the characters in the first place, how can you tell that they’ve changed at all?
Based on the first novel by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Mysteries fails to provide any of the weight or beauty that the book embodied. Â·Some of the metaphors and scenes that worked well in the book miss the mark so completely that they are the very reason the film fails. Â·In editing the original text, writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) doesn’t just cut it, he butchers it.
It’s the summer of 1983 and Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is desperately trying to avoid responsibility — and his family. Â·His gangster father (Nick Nolte) doesn’t understand why Art works at a discount bookshop, doesn’t understand why he’s not more focused on becoming a stockbroker, and really doesn’t understand why Art spends time with the people he does. Â·But Art’s melancholy and reluctance to embrace life after college is broken when he meets the beautiful Jane (Sienna Miller) and the crazy Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). The couple embraces Art, dragging him along like a sidecar on a crazy motorcycle ride through Pittsburgh.
There are so many different undercurrents running through the film that they all spin out of control, creating a whirlpool that sucks all the energy out of the story. Â·Between Art’s sexual encounters with his supervisor Phlox (Mena Suvari), to his obvious attraction to Jane, to the sexual tension with the bisexual Cleveland, to the problems with his father’s role in the mafia, to the guilt over his mother’s death as a mob hit — it goes on and on and on and on.
In the novel, Chabon makes it work; in the film, Thurber does not. Â·Chabon’s novel dives into Art’s head and explores every crevice and thought, so his ruminations, his internal conflicts, his desires, are evident and clear. Â· Foster’s Art never much progresses beyond the shocked look of ”is this really happening to me?” Despite the sheer abundance of narrative voiceovers, Art remains one of the biggest mysteries of the film. Boredom seems to be his only real motivation, though love is supposed to play some role. The word is said a lot, but it’s not really shown much.
Foster is adorable — like an overgrown puppy who needs to be watched at all times or else he’s going to get into trouble. But he turns Art into someone who might be living underwater, always a little delayed in his reactions and never fully present. While Art’s rudderless existence is supposed to be an existential crisis, it’s more cartoon-like, as if he took a wrong turn back at Albuquerque and doesn’t know how he ended up in Pittsburgh.
Sarsgaard is best at capturing the enigma of Cleveland — a little crazy, a little stupid, and a little sexy. He manages to make lines that might otherwise seem trite into strong representatives of Cleveland. Â·When he says, ”I’m fabulous,” he could mean that he’s doing well, it could be dripping with sarcasm, or he could be flirting with Art. Â· It’s one of the rare moments when the script and actor serve the character perfectly. Â·
Miller is cool, a little distant, and her Jane is also not fully formed. While one might think that she’s supposed to be the temptress that no one ever really knows, given the lack of depth that curses the rest of the characters she’s more likely part of the trend rather than the anomaly. But like her performance in Interview, she proves that she has acting chops. It would be nice to see them challenged by a better project.
Despite the gangster aspects of the film, which gave all the Soprano extras a couple days of work, the real story is seemingly the love triangle between Art, Cleveland and Jane. It could have been a wonderful exploration of fluid sexualities, friendship, love and sex, but instead it’s an awkward compilation of scenes that never fully explains all the individual responses. Â·It’s more than simply swapping lovers, but it’s less than a life-altering event.
The real mystery of Pittsburgh is what a different writer and director could have unpacked from Chabon’s novel. Sadly, it’s a mystery that will never be solved.