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No Price Too High for the Privilege of Owning Yourself

By Ted Boynton | Film | April 10, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | April 10, 2009 |

Much like the term chemistry in describing the success of ensemble casts or sports teams, the concepts of tone and mood in films and novels defy ready explication, though they are generally vital to success. In adapting Michael Chabon’s much-loved debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber captures the essential but hard-to-define feel of Chabon’s book by largely re-focusing the narrative to feature more prominently the novel’s most intriguing character, while at the same time retaining the fundamental depiction of the protagonist’s teetering steps across the tightrope running from what society or family expects of us to what is true to our nature. While Thurber’s adaptation has its flaws, the film version of Mysteries penetrates to the core of that breathless sensation of jumping blindly from the familiar, guided only by the trusting embrace of one’s sense of self.

As in the novel, Mysteries centers on recent college graduate Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), an economics major expecting to spend a dreary summer preparing for the examination to become a securities trader in a job arranged by his father, local gangster Joe “the Egg” Bechstein (Nick Nolte). Bechstein the elder greatly desires that his son live a boring, respectable life far from police surveillance and hotel rooms crowded with scheming wise guys, but his son’s vague dissonance over this plan has left him emotionally adrift. When not whiling away his days in a bookstore job attractive solely for its utter lack of responsibility, Art spends his time in a dead-end relationship with his embarrassingly over-dramatic boss (Mena Suvari), whose primary interest is ensuring that all of their co-workers know that they’ve had sex in every part of the store.

Art’s tepid existence takes an unexpected swing following a chance introduction to Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller), a hard-partying society girl neck-deep in an intense, unstable relationship with sleazily charming ne’er-do-well Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Jane and Cleveland take a strong mutual liking to Art, who brings a hint of stability to a relationship continually threatened by Cleveland’s omni-sexual wanderings and destructive emotional nihilism. For his part, Art eagerly enters a complex orbit around these fiercely burning twin suns, all the more entrancing for their constant threat of supernova. While the film pivots on Art’s fears about his father, his future, and, ultimately, his own ambiguous sexuality, Jane and Cleveland provide the essential gravity giving weight to those themes.

Developing an artistic work from the existing effort of another artist necessarily involves risks inherently distinct from the creation of a wholly original expression, particularly where the adapted work is as well-regarded as Chabon’s. Capturing the spirit of the original work presents a delicate balance between hewing too closely to the original in rote recitation and creating an entirely separate work hampered by the inchoate feeling of a missing limb. Although one might expect that narrative media would be easily transposed, introspective novels in the genre of The Catcher in the Rye are notoriously difficult to adapt to cinema because their ruminative nature doesn’t readily lend itself to the “don’t tell me, show me” rubric of cinema. An important feature of both media, however, is the frequent presence of richly drawn supporting characters who become more interesting than the protagonist. Thurber succeeds in translating the spirit of Mysteries by zeroing in on the nitroglycerin river of Cleveland and Jane’s relationship. In Chabon’s novel, Cleveland and Jane occupied a secondary but critical subplot catalyzing the elements of Art’s other relationships. Thurber simmers the components of Mysteries into a rich broth in which Cleveland, Jane and Art occupy the same spaces envisioned by Chabon but with a streamlined narrative suitable for cinema.

Mysteries comes to life through the competition among Cleveland, Jane, and Art’s father, in all of their various motivations, for Art’s soul. Foster, a relative unknown whose prior work consists largely of television drama, delivers a competently unshowy performance as Art; he’s hardly inspiring, but the film doesn’t need him to be, as his primary assignment is to offer a blank slate to the more interesting players, then get out of the way. Sarsgaard is riveting, naturally, delivering a twist on his signature queasily likable thug (see, e.g., Garden State) by building facets of vulnerability and despair into Cleveland’s sexual omnivore. Far more surprising is Sienna Miller’s impressive performance as Jane; with the exception of a wandering accent that can’t decide whether it’s from Savannah or Los Angeles, Miller does excellent work balancing a chippy party-girl façade against an affectingly subtle hunger for connection. Outwardly brushing aside Cleveland’s indiscretions while inwardly suffering a seemingly doomed love, Miller’s tawny light illuminates and softens Sarsgaard’s high-functioning outlaw, forming a single magnetic personality that would doubtless attract a drifting, sensitive intellect like Art. Nolte also shines as a flint-hearted career criminal whose protective love for his son can’t overcome his alpha male demands for obedience and loyalty above such adolescent trifles as spiritual satisfaction.

Mysteries is by no means perfect, and aside from Foster’s flat lead, a number of narrative flaws occasionally threaten to derail the film. Thurber skirts the DMZ of moody, introspective films by dabbling in voiceover exposition, flirting with a “don’t tell me, show me” violation of his own. This narration, which works fitfully only because of the quality of the writing, gains nothing from Foster’s dull intonation, though the story still coheres well. More troubling is the treatment of Phlox (Suvari), Art’s primary love interest in Chabon’s novel, whom Thurber reduces to an empty, tragicomic cipher. Where Chabon created a hazy, romantic dreamer well-suited to Art’s unmoored confusion, Thurber’s Phlox offers little more than an apparent effort at comic relief and a slight narrative impetus when the story needs a plot turn. While re-conceiving the story without Phlox could work well, the character is really an all-or-nothing proposition, best excised altogether in lieu of a lip-service salute to the original storyline. As it stands, her presence adds nothing to the film but creates a significant distraction for those familiar with the book. Suvari is also the weakest element in an otherwise solid cast, though one hesitates to lay the blame entirely on her.

These foibles don’t distract substantially from the film’s successes, however, largely because the writing, both Chabon’s and Thurber’s, is solid. Thurber’s dialogue clunks a little here and there, but the apple didn’t fall far from the tree: Chabon’s novel succeeded miraculously well despite the occasionally stilted manner in which its characters conversed. Having never been to Pittsburgh, I can’t say whether Mysteries truly captures the city’s individuality, but the film brings with it a distinct sense of place and time, credibly funneling the story into a poignant third act that avoids overt sentimentality while still getting Art to the church on time.

In light of the film’s themes, there is little doubt that the facile and ubiquitous critical description of Mysteries will be that it is a “coming-of-age” story. Relying on this descriptor is both trite and reductive, missing the dramatic underpinning of both Thurber’s and Chabon’s contemplation of what it truly means to mature. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a story of becoming open to self-knowledge, even at the price of significant pain; of acknowledging that family and upbringing are an accident outside one’s control, and that one can choose how to be influenced; and of refusing to exist in a particular box simply because that is what is expected.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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