- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

Michael Chabon gets a “very special thank you” in the credits of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.”

He should have received a big apology instead.

Rawson Marshall Thurber’s bland film bears almost no resemblance to the luminous novel on which it’s purportedly based.

Mr. Chabon’s 1988 debut is about one of those legendary summers, like Jay Gatsby’s in 1922 Long Island. Narrator Art Bechstein, in love with two people, fumblingly tries to discover who he is and how to become his own man by distancing himself from his father the summer after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. These are familiar themes; what makes the novel so special is its lush language and curious cast of characters.

You won’t find either in this adaptation. Art (Jon Foster) still narrates the story of his life-changing early-1980s summer, but without the marvelous metaphors he relates through the book, he’s a young man with no personality. One of the people he’s torn between, Arthur Lecomte, is nowhere to be found in the film, and the other, the fascinating creation Phlox Lombardi (Mena Suvari), is reduced to a caricature of an insecure, easy girl.

Instead, Art falls in love with both halves of the couple Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller) and Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard), portrayed here as rather boorish heavy drinkers — nothing like the embodiments of summer’s dazzling potential they are in the book.

Art is spending “the last summer of my life,” as he describes it, making minimum wage at a down-market bookstore and postponing responsibility for a few months. His father (Nick Nolte) is a gangster who wants Art to follow the straight and narrow. When he finds out his son’s new friend Cleveland is a low-level errand boy for one of his associates, he’s less than impressed.

“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” fails on its own terms — not just in comparison with its source material. The characters regularly spout cliches, as when one declares, “You can’t fix him” or another talks about Jane’s “quiet strength.”

The actors do their best with what little they’re given. Miss Miller, in particular, comes close to captivating with her heady smile. But the mysteries here are how talented people like her, Mr. Sarsgaard and Miss Suvari signed on to this film and why the director of “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” put Mr. Chabon’s name on something that bears little relation to the masterpiece he wrote.


TITLE: “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”

RATING: R (Strong sexuality, nudity and language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber based on the novel by Michael Chabon

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: www.mysteries-of-pittsburgh.com


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