There are all kinds of fine arguments for why The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is an unsuccessful film, and I’ll grant most (perhaps all) of them. And yet, for whatever reason, for me the film worked; it’s a messy, uneven picture with a milquetoast lead and a climax that’s all wrong, but it’s full of memorable performances and small scenes that are brought off beautifully.
It’s based on the 1988 novel by Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay), though it has been much streamlined and reconfigured, according to everything I’ve read (except the book, which I unfortunately haven’t). The story is told by the Art Bechstein (Jon Foster, bland), the son of a powerful Pittsburgh gangster (Nick Nolte), as he remembers the summer after he finished college. “So Art,” his father asks, “what are you gonna do this summer?” He doesn’t really know, except hopefully nothing much—he begins his summer intentionally aimless, schlepping books around a discount bookstore, having sex with his boss (Mena Suvari), avoiding the obligations that await him at summer’s end.
Then he meets Jane (Sienna Miller), and is instantly smitten, though there is the small matter of her boyfriend, the rough-and-tumble, enigmatic Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Both of them take a shine to Art, for different reasons, and he finds himself filling a strange third wheel role that transforms into a bit of an emotional (and then, perhaps, physical) love triangle.
As Bechstein, Jon Foster doesn’t have much to do or much to play; like Colin Hanks in The Great Buck Howard or Joseph Cross in Running With Scissors, he’s the blank straight man/audience surrogate, reactive to the action around him. Like those actors, Foster doesn’t make much of an impression, and either he overplays a key moment with Sarsgaard, or they leave the camera on him too long. Miller is just fine, and is unreasonably good-looking, but it’s rather a thin role—she does her best, but the role feels as though there is more depth under the surface that we never quite get to take a look at.
But from his first entrance to his over-the-top exit, Peter Sarsgaard owns the picture. It’s a fabulous role; he gets to play tough, wounded, cocky, sensitive, jealous, warm, and sexually ambiguous, all with a crooked smile and flashing eyes. Sarsgaard is a terrific actor too often wasted in small roles, and it’s nice to see him grab a character like this and go all the way with it. And Nolte is just plain outstanding—as in some of his more notable recent work (like The Good Thief or Hotel Rwanda), he conveys the weight and power of his character effortlessly, without lapsing into easy caricature.
One of the more memorable aspects of Curtis Hanson’s outstanding 2000 film adaptation of Chabon’s Wonder Boys was the matter-of-fact way it regarded characters’ fluid sexuality, an element that is present here as well; though I’ve read that the homosexual themes were more explicit in the book, I was impressed that the film didn’t shy away from the more controversial side of the sexual triangle (even if it comes at an inopportune moment, in terms of our sympathy for—and understanding of—our protagonist). Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (who, strangely, also helmed Dodgeball), penned the script, which works mostly in tight, punchy scenes and keeps the story moving briskly and effectively, even if he leans too heavily on the voice-over narrations. I like Chabon’s prose as much as the next guy, but the narration is used as a convenience—either commit to it or don’t, but don’t just drop it in when you need to get out of a narrative corner.
Thurber’s script goes a little lumpy around the hour mark, with too many montages to music, too many easy confrontations, and a strange turn in the last 20 minutes that reminded me of the kind of 1980s filmmaking where everything was tied up with a car chase, no matter how inappropriate and unexpected. But there are still some great little moments—he does a sly lift from Roeg (or perhaps Roeg by way of Soderbergh) for a love scene (in which the undressing is infinitely more erotic than the choreographed, perfectly lit sex), while Art’s first night out with the couple has a wonderful, edgy, uncertain energy to it. In those small moments, if not in the big picture, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh plays best.
As plenty of other critics have noted, Rawson doesn’t land The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a conventional sense; it’s a problematic picture, and requires a specific kind of patience and indulgence from the viewer. So no, it’s not an altogether successful film. But it is an interesting one, and frankly, that’s almost as rare these days.
"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.