Despite what you might think, some film critics—me included—don't relish writing negative reviews. Oh, sure, give me a piece of bloated, Hollywood excess whose story has been completely overlooked in favor of special effects, overseas box office and a PG-13 rating, and I'll tear it a new one. But a bad review means spending more time thinking about something I didn't like very much in the first place. And it's less fun to have to report that a small and sincere attempt like Mysteries of Pittsburgh just isn't particularly worthwhile.
It's 1983 and Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), the unassuming son of a gangster (Nick Nolte), has returned to Pittsburgh after college and is spending the summer doing not much of anything before he moves on to the next phase of his life. He takes a minimum-wage job at a bookstore, where he almost immediately starts sleeping with his boss, Phlox (Mena Suvari), whom he doesn't take seriously at all. He sees his father once a month over a steak dinner, and though he's studying for a stockbroker exam, he's determined to shirk as much responsibility as possible.
All that changes when he falls hard for Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller), a gorgeous aspiring actress. She's intrigued by him, too. Only trouble is, Jane's got a boyfriend, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), an intelligent, small-time thug who pays
Art a visit the next day when he hears that he might have a rival for Jane's affection. Not to kick his ass, mind you, but to show him the little-known pleasures Pittsburgh offers. The three quickly become BFFs over tequila shots, punk bands and languorous summer afternoons. Of course, Art is attracted to Jane and jealous of her relationship with Cleveland, but he's also bonding with Cleveland, too, who, it turns out, swings both ways. And, at a certain point, he has to ask himself: If things go south between his new best friends, well, which one might he be interested in?
Adapting a novel for the screen is hard, especially when it's been written by someone with prose as exceptional as Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon's (Pittsburgh was his debut novel). Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who hit it big with Dodgeball and who wins the Coolest Name of the Year award, is obviously enamored of the intricate coming-of-age novel, but that enthusiasm plays out flaccidly on the screen, regardless of the sexual tension in the relationships.
Part of the problem is that the character of Art has limited appeal. Jon Foster seems an attractive enough actor, but the character is a blank slate, a boring preppie with an interesting family who finds himself hanging out with people much cooler than he is. But that raises the question: Why do they want to kick it with him at all, his father's business interests aside. Thurber shows us that Art, Cleveland and Jane have become terrific friends—we see that they are, but it's hard to understand exactly why this offbeat couple would adopt this college grad who's perpetually studying for a stockbroker exam he doesn't want to take.
It plays out decently on the page because we're privy to Art's introspection and examination of himself, but it's hard to believe that these good-looking people would have much interest in helping a gangster's wallflower son learn how to bloom. Many of the explanations are given to us via voiceover, but those lines, which must have sounded so good when Thurber read them for the first time, come across stilted and pretentious. And when, as films with gangsters always do, things go wrong and violence goes down, the human dramas that need to be shaken up are done so in a way that you can see coming from a mile off.
Yes, Peter Sarsgaard is solid as Cleveland, a smart guy who's better than the work he's doing, and Nick Nolte, as Art's dad, is always interesting, even if he's rarely on screen. But solving The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn't satisfy, for all its good intentions.