The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Though I haven’t read it in over a decade, Michael Chabon’s 1988 debut novel
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is one of my favorite books. (Just for
the record – not that it has anything to do with this article, but numero
uno for me is John Irving’s The World According to Garp.) In the
years since then, Chabon has put together a terrific body of work; including
novels Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Gentlemen of the Road
and even winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier and Clay.
Still, twenty-one years after Pittsburgh was released to critical
acclaim and rather good sales, it seems surprising that it is just now
finally making it to film. The book has been optioned, started and aborted
several times over those years. (Actors such as Kevin Bacon and Eric Stoltz
were amongst those supposed to be connected to the
title at one point or another.) In fact, in interest of full disclosure, in
the late 90s when I was still trying to get a screenwriting career off the
ground, a producer I was working with and I contacted Chabon’s people about
optioning the book and they were open to exploring the idea, but eventually
we decided that while it was a very good piece of literature, it may be too
dense and complicated a character study to do real justice to in the
confines of a feature film.
Writer and director
Marshall Thurber – who is best known for the goofy Ben Stiller comedy
Dodgeball, of all things – is the one who finally got a labor of love
version of the novel to the multiplexes. (Though, after two years sitting
on the shelf – it was filmed in 2006 – and now having an extremely limited
run planned, unless you live in a big city or there is a miracle you’ll
probably have to wait to catch it on video.)
has come up with a rather unique way of overcoming the problem of doing the
original book justice – by pretty much ignoring the original storyline and
main characters except for in the broadest strokes.
fairness to Thurber, Chabon was apparently involved in the filming and did
not have a big problem with the wholesale changes that the movie made with
his story and characters – including nearly completely overlooking two of
the most important people in the book.
writer is willing to let go, I suppose that we, the readers, should also be
as open-minded. However, I have to admit, watching The Mysteries of
Pittsburgh as someone who is familiar with the original novel is a
rather frustrating exercise.
character is completely written out – or at least ham-handedly merged
into another surviving character – and the other character goes from a huge
place in the story to being a minor and annoying part. (Her
role is also merged slightly with other characters in the book).
the relationship between the main character Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) and a
couple of free spirits, Cleveland and Jane (Peter Saarsgard and Sienna
Miller) did not even start until about halfway into the novel. The
character of Cleveland is the merge – many of his character
traits are based on the disappeared character of
Arthur Lecomte. (Yes, the book had two major
characters named Arthur. What of it?)
the entire first half of the book is essentially untapped.
understand that fans of most novels which are adapted for screen feel the
same way. Also, in fairness to the film, it sort of captures the general
vibe of the book. However, in many ways this is a different story – and
frankly, not as good of one.
it seems that the filmmakers have sapped the story of just about everything
that made it whimsical or unique, coming out with a
formulaic indie-movie-love-triangle-template plot
with a bisexual twist. (And a bisexual twist
itself is not all that rare in the indie world.)
is left here?
too much. Art is a recent college grad whose father is a local gangster (Nick
Nolte). Art doesn't have a particularly good relationship with his dad, who
he keeps at a distance. He certainly doesn't want to go into the family
business. He is actually working hard to get a legit and respectable career as a stockbroker.
(Though we may take it as a joke post-Bear Stearns and Enron, this wasn't
merely being ironic in the Wall Street “Greed is good” decade. You
gotta love the 80s!)
meets the bohemian gangsta-wannabe Cleveland and his gorgeous girlfriend and
quickly falls in love with both, and essentially sits back and watches as
the two drag him deeper into their worlds. Cleveland wants to meet Art's
dad – an idea that Art smartly resists but eventually allows, with somewhat
On the plus side, Miller and Sarsgaard are terrific in their roles,
certainly overshadowing the somewhat bland work of lead star Foster.
(Ironically, Foster is hitting a double-dose of bad 80s nostalgic angst as
this movie is opening on the same weekend as his lead performance in Bret
Easton Ellis’ wretched The Informers.) Mena Suvari is just fine in
her role – at least doing what little of the lead character of Phlox that is
left over with a certain amount of panache, though only the literary
character's very worst traits are carried over to the movie.
not living up to its source material, it’s also just The Mysteries of
Pittsburgh’s bad timing that it has come out mere weeks after Greg
Mottola’s Adventureland – a much savvier and more thoughtful look at
growing up in Pittsburgh in the late 80s.
you have never read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, chances are you may
leave the theater thinking this is not a bad movie – though a bit
overwrought and a little predictable. If you have read it, you'll realize
that not bad is not nearly good enough.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: April 24, 2009.