It was five years ago when writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber debuted "Dodgeball," an utterly charming slapstick sports comedy that raked in massive box office coin. Now Thurber has returned with "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," an introspective art-house melodrama that's about as tonally opposite from "Dodgeball" as can be. Thurber's quest for an adult filmmaking identity is commendable, but "Pittsburgh" is a mess of a movie, looking to contort Michael Chabon's 1988 novel into a darkly personal story of choice and desire. Instead the film sloppily lumbers around in search of a consistent dramatic path. It's handsome enough, just wildly misguided from frame one.
About to embark on his final summer before adulthood, Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is hoping to cling to his last moments of freedom by working a minimum-wage job at a bookstore, where he's enjoying a sexual relationship with his boss, Phlox (Mena Suvari). With his mobster father (Nick Nolte) increasingly upset with his vocational choices, Art takes solace in a friendship with musician Jane (Sienna Miller, offered nothing to play) and her boyfriend, small-time hood Cleveland (a miscast and quite tiresome Peter Sarsgaard). While a tumultuous couple, Art remains intimate with the duo, riding out waves of discontent and betrayal, hoping his loyalty will help him satisfy his sexual curiosity for both parties.
Like most demanding book adaptations, "Pittsburgh" was just too much for Thurber to handle. That's not necessarily a knock on the "Dodgeball" director, as Chabon's dense narrative might've been an absolute bear for anyone to successfully tackle. The filmmaker is looking to obtain the coming-of-age awe of the piece, using Foster's slack-jawed performance as a tour guide to the various humiliations and shame spirals of the material, following Art as he moves from mouse to man over three emotionally draining months. If the character arcs were simpler, less literary engorged, there might've been a special spice of discomfort for Thurber to spread throughout his screenplay. Instead, the filmmaker is trapped trying to retain the distinct flashes of conflict from the book, stuffing them carelessly into a feature film that doesn't have the time to properly fluff and fold the dramatic laundry.
"Pittsburgh" is a hasty film (though impressively shot by Michael Barrett), throwing all the characters into a blender and pouring out a finished product that's bitter with halfway realized subplots and ludicrous motivations. It's partially Chabon's doing, dreaming up a few extravagant plot revelations that never quite scream out for a cinematic representation. Thurber doesn't take the hint, instead earnestly trying to articulate the vague levels of boil between Art and his Mafioso pappy, or the lustful betrayal of Phlox, who registers in the film as perhaps the least aware movie character of the last decade. It's a subplot that never achieves ideal sensitivity, partially due to Suvari's expectedly one-dimensional performance.
Where "Pittsburgh" flops the hardest is in the central relationship between Art, Julie, and Cleveland. Thurber is immediatley caught up in the sexual temptation between the trio, forgoing a logical explanation as to why these three unpleasant people would even spark together in the first place (I couldn't sense one authentic reason why anyone would take a shine to Cleveland). In a film that consistently hurdles reason to zero in on hysterics, it makes sense for Thurber to gently ignore organic social development and head right to the juicy betrayal. However, once Art and Cleveland's bisexuality comes to fruition, the shortcuts peppering "Pittsburgh" start to tear the film apart. The second half of the feature holds the fragile consistency of a Lifetime movie, complete with irrational acts of allegiance and wobbly confessions of endearment. Thurber works up a sweat to preserve Chabon's sexual square dance, ignoring critical components of character development along the way. It leaves "Pittsburgh" a greatest hits reel of concern without any concrete reason to care.
The AVC encode (2.40:1 aspect ratio) leaves much to be desired. Noticeable DNR issues suck the detail right out of the evocative photography, leaving a cast of handsome faces without needed depth to convey their performances. Black levels are quite inky and smothering, overwhelming evening sequences, leaving a few moments of action difficult to discern. Colors pop fantastically, with vivid hues managing to overcome the rest of the presentation's shortcomings.
The DTS HD audio track does a fine job separating dialogue from the film's soundtrack selections and score. Nightclub atmospherics provide a burst of depth, with thumping low-end dramatics and vivid surround activity. The mix mostly concentrates on verbal exchanges, with all sequences clear as a bell. A French track is also included.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
"Behind-the-Scenes of 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh'" (5:28) is a curious featurette, mostly due to its low-tech style. Thurber, interviewed while tossing around a football, lends his thoughts on the production, placing emphasis on the physical sequences of the film. BTS footage provides a glimpse into the staging and execution of the brawling and falling.
"Based Upon the Novel by Michael Chabon" (10:04) sticks closely to questions of adaptation, and how the author's "unadaptable" novel made it to the big screen. Interviews with Chabon and Thurber are enlightening, and provide a great sense of the film's intent and ultimate failure.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
I wouldn't say Art matures over the duration of this movie as much as he survives, which I can't image was Chabon's ultimate point. Thurber's heart was in the right place with "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," but his execution is too myopic to leave a lasting impression. Instead of an epic charting of growth, the film offers random portraits of self-doubt and libidinous activity, only served without the proper amplification to make it come alive.
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