The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Michael Chabon's honored novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" has baffled filmmakers and confounded producers since the book's release in 1988. In this reverential and smart distillation, filmmaker Rawson Marshall Thurber has captured the essence of the coming-of-age novel. Undoubtedly, literal-minded readers of the novel will be disrupted by the film's shrewd condensation of characters, but select-site audiences will warm to the craftsmanship and storytelling.

It's particularly difficult to adapt a novel where the main character is foremost an observer, an attendant knight who by nature generally avoids action.

Unfortunately, the film's glossy sheen and artful compositions are often distracting, bracketed by seeming calendar shots for a Pennsylvania tourism office. Its golden patina and romantic framings seem contrived at times, and upset the story's many layers.

In movie-ese, '80s college graduate Art Beckstein (Jon Foster ) faces a similar graduation dilemma that Benjamin Braddock faced in the '60s in "The Graduate." It's not plastics, but, rather brokerage houses that Art is funneled toward. A cum laude graduate, Art's the prize only child of a gangster father (Nick Nolte) who demands a straight-and-narrow path for Art.

Naturally passive, Art is also determined to find his own way. He rationalizes that he has a summer to prolong the inevitable, when he is expected to take a cushy set-up job orchestrated by his father. In quiet desperation, he embarks on a last-summer of sloth, subverting his father by intentionally taking a low-level job and half-heartedly studying for his brokerage exam. He lets himself get drawn in by dangerous dalliances, sexual and social. In short, Art consorts with all the wrong sorts, subconsciously hoping that others will force him to do what he cannot do, defy his father.

It's the players that invigorate "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and keenly flesh-out its emotional dimensions. Jon Foster is superb as the conflicted Art, evincing mettle as a young man overcome with a sense of doom. In the film's most flamboyant role, Peter Sarsgaard's devil-ish charisma and cold bluster is frightening. He truly hypnotizes those around him, including his upper-class girlfriend (Jane Bellwether) who is destructively entranced by his bad-boy wiles.

Other performances are consistently on-target: Mena Suvari is sympathetic as a lowly book-store manager with low self esteem, while Nick Nolte is aptly intimidating as Art's carnivorous father.

In general, the technical contributions are well-realized, albeit overly romanticized. The film's luminous, Rockwell-ean look, save for its attention-getting pictorials, are a strong credit for director of photography Michael Barrett and production designer Maher Ahmad.

THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH
Groundswell Prods.
Director/Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber based on the novel by Michael Chabon
Producers: Michael London, Jason Mercer, Thor Benander
Executive producers: Bruna Papandrea, Peter Chiarelli
Director of photography: Michael Barrett
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Editor: Babara Tulliver
Cast
Art Bechstein: Jon Foster
Cleveland Arning: Peter Sarsgaard
Jane Bellweather: Sienna Miller
Phlox: Mena Suvari
Joe Beckstein: Nick Nolte
Running time – 96 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
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