Even though Rawson Marshall Thurber’s film The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is based on a Michael Chabon novel of the same name, its title is misleading. Given that title, shouldn’t the film contain at least a little mystery? And shouldn’t it bear at least some of the character and charm – or, if the filmmaker were so inclined, the grit and ennui – of the Steel City? Though Chabon’s novel is very specifically set in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, the film contains so little of the particulars of that time and place that it could have been set anywhere, even anywhen. If co-star Sienna Miller hadn’t famously called the town “Shitsburgh” in an interview with Rolling Stone, you could have told me the movie was shot in Vancouver, or Toronto, or on Los Angeles soundstages, and I would have believed you.
I haven’t read Chabon’s novel, but if you told me the movie significantly changes the source material, I would believe that too. In Thurber’s version, the hero is Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), a recent college graduate preparing for the exam he needs to become the stock broker his mob boss father (Nick Nolte) wants him to be. Entering into what Art calls the last summer of his life, he decides to take a job with as little responsibility as possible, and winds up as a clerk at a used bookstore, where he goes about his tasks with the same lack of enthusiasm with which he screws his ditzy boss Phlox (Mena Suvari, whose hair and outfits are the most egregiously modern in a film filled with bad period detail). At a party, he meets the boozy-but-sexy Jane (Miller) and through Jane he meets her boozy-but-cool boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). They open Art’s eyes to the wonders of listening to punk music, drinking excessively, and sitting around talking about things so inconsequential I cannot remember a single topic of note just hours after watching the film.
Herein lies a crucial problem: Art becomes obsessed with Jane and Cleveland but the movie doesn’t show us anything worth getting obsessed over. They’re not intriguing; they’re vapid. They don’t have aspirations, dreams, goals, concerns, or even fundamental thoughts. Their entire lives consists drinking, screwing, smoking and looking very attractive; as Art burrows deeper into their world, there isn’t more to discover about the pair, there’s less.
Even though he’s ten years too old for his part, Sarsgaard was likely cast because he’s the only actor working today willing to explore the emotional and sexual places the character demands. It’s too bad the screenplay doesn’t bring half as much complexity to the Cleveland as Sarsgaard does with simple things like exhausted sighs and world-weary looks. Thurber tries to disguise the characters’ innate dullness by swaddling the frame in warm, nostalgic hues and the soundtrack in warm, nostalgic songs, but that only serves to illuminate the vast divide between the magical movie he hoped for and the rote movie he made.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh would play as weak sauce in any context, but it’s especially disappointing coming to theaters on the heels of the similarly themed but superiorly made Adventureland by Greg Mottola and because Thurber’s first film, Dodgeball, was such a precisely-made piece of low-brow comedy. Here, I think, he was going something more whimsical and emotional, though there is no evidence within the text to support that claim. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is too leaden, and so is Foster as its lead. He moves through the film – and narrates his own adventures – with such a palpable air of indifference, that it begs the question: if he’s so disinterested in his own life, why should we care about it? Art, and really the film as a whole, has no sense of curiosity. And certainly no sense of mystery.