' Cinema Romantico: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Rawson Marshall Thurber's debut was the comedy "Dodgeball", uneven, though it had its moments, and he chose to follow it up with his own adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh". I enthusiastically applaud Thurber for challenging himself with tougher material and not merely copying his formula - that said, this movie is not good. It's just....well, not good.

The voiceover is not good. Thankfully it is only included in the first 15 minutes or so of the film because it might be the worst voiceover I have encountered. Let me give an example. At the start of the film our main character, Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), is at a restaurant to have dinner with his father (Nick Nolte, whose face is as weathered as the Oklahoma plains during tornado season). A couple ominous men sit at another table, watching them. "Don't look at them," says his father. "They have nothing to do with your life." Perhaps you can guess who these men are, perhaps not, but it casts an air of mystery over the dinner. Oh. Except it doesn't. Because the voiceover tells us everything - Art's father is a notorious mob boss in the steel city and these two men are with the FBI.

Later, Art is approached at the book store where he works by a mysterious guy in a leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet who demands that Art come with him. Scary stuff, right? Who is this guy? What does he want? Where is he taking him? From events preceding it, you probably know, but you don't know for certain and, thus, it grips you. Oh. Except it doesn't. Because the voiceover tells us everything. The guy in the motorcycle helmet is Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), the boyfriend of a beautiful girl Art met the previous night.

It repeatedly does this at the start. The prose used for this narration (no doubt taken directly from the novel - I haven't read it) is fine but it sucks all the wind out of these opening passages. All sense of drama is blundered. It's just hideously used. If it had gone on the whole movie I honestly might have walked out.

The lead performance by Jon Foster is not good. He seems a nice, genuine person who is trying really hard to make this movie work but he does not. He does not even come close. A lot happens to this kid and not much of it feels authentic. He just fumbles around, scene to scene, not changing on the screen even though he's changing on paper. He reminded me of a low rent Josh Hamilton, the lead from movies like "Kicking and Screaming" and "The House of Yes". Very, very laconic. But Hamilton always makes you feel like there is a whole lot more rippling beneath the surface, waiting to be dredged up. Foster makes you feel like what you see is what you get and, believe me, you don't see much.

The Dream Girl is not good. You know, The Dream Girl, the perfect, angel-haired woman who magically materializes and with whom our lead character will instantly fall in love. Whine all you want about Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman in "Elizabethtown" and "Garden State", respectively, but at least they were given characteristics. They were defiantly themselves, whether or not they were liked by the audience. But Jane Bellwether, The Dream Girl of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh", is a big slab of cardboard. And here's the ultimate kicker! The Dream Girl is played by Sienna Miller! My Dream Girl! If a movie's Dream Girl is played by your actual Dream Girl and you still don't find the Dream Girl believable, well, that is a spectacular breakdown on all levels. (Not that Ms. Miller isn't beautiful in the film. When she's taking shots with the fingerless gloves....I mean, in the name of Helen of Troy....but I digress.)

The scenes are not good. I know that sounds broad but it's true. The old adage in filmmaking is start the scene after it's already become interesting and end the scene before it stops it being interesting. All the scenes here feel as if Thurber either started it after it stopped being interesting or stopped it right before it became interesting. The material seems as if it should be pulverizing, the relationship between Art and Jane and Cleveland ripe for heavy drama. I felt there was a lot to explore but Thurber just never went exploring. More interaction and less montage, please.

I hope Thurber does not let this deter him and I hope he tries tough material again next time and doesn't revert back to "Dodgeball 2". But I also hope it's even the tiniest bit more successful.

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