The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

A beach party, Pittsburgh-style.

(Peace Arch) Jon Foster, Peter Skarsgaard, Nick Nolte, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Keith Michael Gregory, Seth Adams. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

There comes a point where we all need to find ourselves. We drift aimlessly from moment to moment, never really sure who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act. Sometimes, it takes one strange summer to right our drifting ships.

Art Bechstein (Foster) has a very bright future ahead of him. The son of Joe Bechstein (Nolte), a powerful businessman in the city of Pittsburgh, he’s been accepted to a prestigious university to learn business, with an eye to becoming a stockbroker, much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe’s business, you see, is laundering money for the mob, and he is eager for Art to take over the family business.

Art would much prefer to lose himself in a minimum wage job for the summer, and he finds just the one as a clerk at a book store. He gets involved in a highly sexual relationship with Phlox (Suvari) his manager, and exists in a state of passive stupor. Only when he meets Jane (Miller) at a party does he begin to rouse from the waking slumber he seems caught in.

Jane also has a boyfriend, Cleveland (Skarsgaard), a petty criminal who has a penchant for manipulation, bisexuality and occasional violence. Still, Art is fascinated by him and the two become buddies, each sleeping with Jane and eventually with each other. Cleveland is his own worst enemy and soon runs afoul of the wrong people, leading Art to seek intervention from his father, the ultimate in degradation as far as Art’s concerned. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh, happy endings aren’t a regular occurrence.

This is based on Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel which he wrote in 1988. Chabon, who also wrote “The Wonder Boys” and “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” is one of my favorite authors today. He is a very literary, smart kind of writer and the movie tries to capture that feeling. Director Thurber, who previously helmed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, was much taken by the novel and convinced Chabon that he was the man to bring it to the screen after many failed efforts to do so. That he persevered and got the movie made is to be commended.

That said, it should be noted that the movie suffers from a surfeit of languidness. I think Thurber was trying to emphasize the overall passiveness of the Art character, but Christ on a crutch, he’s borderline narcoleptic here. Art never acts at any time in the movie, always reacts and consequently it’s hard to get fully invested in the character. Foster doesn’t help by playing him colorlessly, although that may have been intentional given the script. Foster’s voice-over narration is over-utilized in places, although the fact that much of the narration is lifted directly from the book is somewhat compensatory.

That opens the door for Skarsgaard and he kicks the damn thing in with a vengeance. This becomes in no small way Cleveland’s movie and Skarsgaard plays the character as something of a modern-day pirate, full of lust for life and zeal for lawlessness. It’s a memorable performance and Skarsgaard could well be on his way to becoming one of the better young actors in Hollywood.

Nolte has become a solid character actor with his hangdog expression; he glowers often like a pit bull is hidden inside. He’s tough but reaches out to his son with regularity, knowing in advance that his feckless boy will turn away. He puzzles over how such a creature could have come from his loins, but doesn’t overly obsess about such things. It’s a great role for Nolte and he’s perfectly cast.

Miller and Suvari are both pleasant enough in their roles, with Suvari getting the nod for performing in a role that has little going for it and makes it at least memorable, which is more than Foster could do with the lead role.

The Pittsburgh depicted here is a tough survivor, the capital of the Rust Belt. While Philadelphia carries with it certain sophistication and is firmly planted in an Eastern mindset, Pittsburgh is more rooted in the Midwest and is much more blue-collar. Abandoned factories and rough and tumble punk clubs are just some of the hangouts for the characters here, and it feels pretty authentic – that much the filmmakers got right. Unfortunately, the movie could have used a bit more oomph in it and quite frankly, a different actor as Art. Foster may well be a decent actor, but he simply couldn’t make Art a character I’d want to spend any time with – not even the 90 minutes of the movie that is about him.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard gives an electrifying performance that lights up the screen. Chabon’s prose, utilized in the narration, is always quite wonderful to hear. Nolte gives yet another solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is uneven and Foster is unfortunately not terribly memorable as Art, although this is perhaps intentional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, sexual tension and nudity throughout, as well as some fairly strong language. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, the character of Cleveland is not bisexual and plays a very minor role. His character was merged with the main gay love interest Arthur Lecomte in order to provide a love triangle for dramatic purposes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting interview with author Michael Chabon, director Thurber as well as some other people connected with the production detailing the novel’s somewhat bumpy journey to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Great New Wonderful

New Releases for the Week of November 6, 2009


Disney's A Christmas Carol

Ebeneezer Scrooge discovers a chain is gonna come.

DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL

(Disney) Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Lesley Manville, Jacquie Barnbrook, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There are very few humans alive in the western world that isn’t aware of the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The book has been the source of many film and television versions of the story, starring actors as disparate as Reginald Owen, Bill Murray, Henry Winkler, Marlo Thomas, George C. Scott, Alastair Sim and Tim Curry to name just a few taking on the role of notorious skinflint and Christmas hater Ebeneezer Scrooge. Now, Carrey is taking his shot, which is a loooong way from The Mask. This is also another motion capture film from Zemeckis (Polar Express, Beowulf).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for scary sequences and images)

An Education

(Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Skarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson. Set in mid-60s London when it was just beginning to swing, young schoolgirl Jenny seems to be set on course for an education at Oxford when she meets an urbane and witty 30-something guy who becomes her new object of desire. He introduces her to a rarefied world of classical concerts, late-night supper clubs, art auctions and sophisticated company. He manages to charm her conservative parents, but her introduction into this new life threatens the one she had been making for herself. Mulligan is already receiving extravagant critical praise for her performance in this role.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking)

The Box

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn. What would you do if someone came to your door with a mysterious wooden box that contained a large red button and offered you a million dollars to push the button? The catch is that if you push the button, a complete stranger will die before their time in response. For the financially strapped Lewis family, this is not just a hypothetical situation when a horribly disfigured man arrives on their stoop with just such a proposition. They quickly learn the price for making that kind of decision could mean far more terrifying consequences than they could ever imagine.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)

The Fourth Kind

(Universal) Milla Jojovich, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Corey Johnson. Ever since the 1960s the town of Nome, Alaska has had a disproportionate amount of disappearances among its general population, a trend that has never been explained. When a psychiatrist begins hypnotizing several traumatized patients to try and get at the root of what is distressing them, she videotapes the sessions. What happened next is all the more astonishing because it actually happened and the filmmakers here weave in footage from the actual hypnotherapy sessions with the recreated scenes here. My son thought this was the most disturbing trailer he’d ever seen. He might have something, there.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements and brief sexuality)

The Men Who Stared at Goats

(Overture) George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey. A reporter looking for the kind of news story that will bring him fortune and glory instead finds Lyn Cassady, a broken down, scruffy man who claims to be part of an elite and shadowy military group that trains soldiers to use psychic powers to do, among other things, read minds, walk through solid walls and kill goats with a single thoughts. Now Cassady is off to find the program’s founder who has gone missing. Inspired by a non-fiction article in Esquire magazine, this marks the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated writer Grant Heslov.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity)