A big-name cast of Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Survari, Nick Nolte, and Jon Foster didn't help. A noted director, Rawston Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story"), and a screenplay adapted from a best-selling novel by celebrated author Michael Chabon ("Wonder Boys") didn't help. So, what went wrong with this 2008 film version of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" that it got only a limited theatrical distribution, earning at the box office just $80,283, pocket change for the producers and barely enough to take the cast and crew out to dinner after the opening? Judging by what is essentially its DVD première, I'd say it's about what the film deserved.
The fact is, some novels don't translate well to the screen. Take the voice-over narration in "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," for instance. It sounds like scriptwriter-director Rawston Thurber lifted it directly from the book, where it probably worked just fine for a piece of figurative, nuanced literature. But it's not the way people talk in real life, and the film's narrator simply sounds pretentious and artificial.
The narrator and main character is Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), a clean-cut young fellow and recent college graduate in economics, whose father (Nick Nolte) is a big-shot gangster. Art's dad has arranged for Art to start a career as a stockbroker in the fall, but Art does not look forward to it. During the summer, he's taken a mindless job in a Book Barn, where all he needs to know is the alphabet. There, out of sheer boredom he begins an affair with the manager, Phlox Lombardi (Mena Suvari), and they make it in every corner of the store. But it's nothing satisfying, nothing lasting. At about the time Art becomes bored with Phlox, the viewer may be getting bored with the film. And the film has just begun.
The time is the summer of 1983, a few years before the book came out, although the time period seems of little or no importance in the film. Indeed, beyond the announcement of the year, there is little or no evidence in the movie indicating what year it actually is except in the recognition of a few automobiles. The idea that it's summer is more important, a carefree season of liberation before the realities of fall set in. So, the movie deals basically in a symbolic Everyman story, so long as that Everyman has a big-time hoodlum for a father, and he's willing to take more chances than most young people would take.
Art is at odds with the world: unsure of himself, unsure of his relationships with people, unsure of his father's love, unsure of where the drifting whims of life will take him. Then he meets an aspiring, free-spirited violinist, Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller), and her devil-may-care, bisexual boyfriend, Cleveland Aming (Peter Sarsgaard). Needless to say, they help to shape Art's future and help him to come to terms with himself. At least, that's the theory.
Obviously, this is a coming-of-age story, the tale of a young man trying to find his way in life, find the meaning of it all, find his place in the grand scheme of things; and just as obviously, the author and filmmakers try to make it as insightful a rite of passage as possible, with a touch of humor and a ton of sex thrown in for good measure. Think here of "The Catcher in the Rye" meets "The Great Gatsby" done up for more modern audiences.
As in "Catcher in the Rye," Art has recurring dreams of disappearing, vanishing, in Art's case into a land of the dead, apparently representing his aimlessness and despair. Jane and Cleveland bring a degree of expressiveness to Art's life, taking the conservative lad on a summer's odyssey of concerts, alcohol, love, and sexual experimentation. Lamentably, it all sounds better than it plays. Or it may have sounded better on the written page.
Probably the film's biggest shortcomings are its stilted, bookish style and its lack of sympathy or empathy with the characters. It's hard to identify with any of these folks--a gangster, a gangster's privileged, purposeless son, a devil-may-care musician, and a minor hood--or care about their situations. Worse, as Thurber directs it, it's all mechanical, with little feeling for the persons involved, the movie more concerned with outward symbols--like the characters' quirky names and the abandoned factory they keep visiting--than with the ideas the symbols represent.
"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" moves along like an old Simon & Garfunkel song, more than willing to show off its literary merits at the expense of displaying much sense. Any humor or irony the story attempts disappears early on, and when the ending finally comes, it's too melodramatic to matter. It leaves us with a film largely tedious and empty.
Phase 4 Films offer the movie in its original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, in an anamorphic transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs. It's a fairly average transfer, though, never bad but never quite as sharp or clean as one might like. Detailing looks slightly smeared on occasion, and colors--probably intentionally--are somewhat eccentric in a neon sort of way. Although definition can range from reasonably precise to somewhat rough, the overall impression is generally pleasing.
Like the picture quality, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is unexceptional. Mainly, we get dialogue and a dash of deep bass in a soundtrack notable for its being unnoticeable. We hear a suggestion of musical bloom and a few environmental noises in the surrounds, with a sonic presentation that sometimes sounds veiled or muffled. I doubt that most viewers will notice or care unless they're listening closely, it's that minor.
There's nothing new here, and precious little of that. The main things are two brief featurettes. The first item is "Behind-the-Scenes of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," about five minutes on the shooting of a couple of scenes. The second item is a tad more substantial, "Based Upon the Novel by Michael Chabon," ten minutes with the filmmakers and author on the various attempts over the years to adapt the book to the screen.
The extras conclude with twelve scene selections; previews at start-up only; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
I'm thinking here of two other famous writers of literary works about coming-of-age. I'm thinking of J.D. Salinger and why he has so steadfastly refused to sell the rights to "The Catcher in the Rye" to Hollywood, despite what must be tremendous financial offers. And I'm thinking of John Knowles and how poorly "A Separate Peace" has fared on film over the years. It's hard to adapt a well-loved, introspective classic to the screen without destroying the magic that a reader's personal imagination can bring to a book. "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" further illustrates the point: A literary work admired for its subtle, emotional insights comes off as a movie mired down in the workaday, the conventional, the run-of-the-mill--a mere pedantic affectation without much substance or soul.