Saturday, April 18, 2009
Peace Arch Entertainment
Coming of age films are filling the theaters these days. Recently we have seen coming of age tales play out in 1980s Pittsburgh ("Adventureland") and Northern Australia ("The Black Balloon"), and coming up we travel to 1970s New Jersey ("Lymelife"). Even "17 Again" (with Zac Efron as the teen version of Matthew Perry) could be seen as a thirty-something guy coming of age when he finds himself back in high school as a teenager looking at both his own life and that of his teen children. This week it's back to Pittsburgh in the 80s for a college age tale of a young man coming into his own in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (opened April 17 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).
"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is based on Michael Chabon's 1988 debut novel about the quiet son of a New England mobster. We join Art (Jon Foster) for one of his strained dinners with Dad (a cleaned up and smartly dressed Nick Nolte). Dad travels with an entourage of FBI agents who are waiting for him to make a false move so they can arrest him. Art has just graduated with a degree in economics and is in need of taking his exams to become a broker. His dad has everything arranged for him but Art has a timid moment of rebellion and decides to work at the discount Book Barn. The way Art sees it, he has three months of freedom to live as he wants before succumbing to the future his father has mapped out for him. Art strikes up an affair with his Book Barn boss who pages him for sexual trysts in the store's stockroom. But Art comes to view even this as a chore.
Then Art meets Jane (Sienna Miller), a lovely blonde with a crazy boyfriend named Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Cleveland initially appears menacing but quickly reveals himself as just wild and mischievous as he brings Art into the fold and into what eventually turns into a ménage a trois. At last Art begins to experience life, as well as true danger and wildness. Cleveland proves to have underworld ties of his own which become problematic for both Cleveland and Art, whose father disapproves of him hanging out with petty thugs.
Since I have not read the novel I can only go by what others have said in regards to the film's faithfulness to its source material. From what I can gather, the film makes some changes that take the story on a much more predictable course. But whether the film remains true to Chabon's novel or not, it delivers a fairly standard coming of age story. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn't have a very distinguished background. He comes to directing this feature with only "Elfquest" and "Dodgeball" under his belt. In "The Mysteries of Cleveland" he has occasional visual flourishes that momentarily lift the routine story out of the mundane. But Thurber can't shake the film's literary roots. He wants to intrigue us with the "mysteries" of Pittsburgh and life, and the occasional poetry in his images -- whether it's soft focus lights or Cleveland's "cloud factory" -- suggests something mysterious at play. But Thurber does not consistently deliver visual innovation.
Thurber's script relies heavily on a voiceover narration by Art. Falling back on this literary device leaves the character as a mere witness to or passive observation of his own life. This is partly due to the nature of the character, who is introverted, but it is also a result of Thurber's direction which gives Art little to do. Foster is outshined by Sarsgaard's Cleveland. Sarsgaard has played the odd third wheel in films ranging from "Garden State" to "Boys Don't Cry" to "The Dying Gaul" -- he conveys danger, vulnerability, and ambivalent sexuality. He's an interesting actor to watch as he finds the charisma necessary to make Cleveland a believable influence on Art. Miller is lovely as Jane, but she doesn't reveal as much depth or range as she did in "Interview." As Art finds himself attracted to both Jane and Cleveland the film grows less convincing, mainly because Foster's portrayal is so blank and unchanging. When violence enters the film Thurber seems less confident, relying on clichés to move the story forward.
"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (rated R for language, violence and sexual content) begins well and boasts good work from Sarsgaard. But with a lackluster central performance and familiar plot elements, the film ultimately fails to leave much of an impression.
Companion viewing: "The Dying Gaul," "Dodgeball," "Interview," "Dreamers"