In Theaters: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
There are, in fact, many mysteries left unsolved at the close of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, some intentional and some not. For example, just how many bisexual, low-level gang members with gambling problems are there in the Steel City? How could a doughy Peter Sarsgaard have the upper-body strength to pull himself effortlessly onto a second-floor terrace during a jewel heist? Who signed off on Nick Nolte's Steven Seagal makeover?
One mystery that is solved at the end of this adaptation of Michael Chabon's acclaimed first novel: the source of the strained relationship between Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) and his mob-boss father Joe (Nolte). The two meet for monthly steak dinners, where Nolte must order the toughest cut of meat on the menu, judging by the vigor and volume of his chewing. Art just finished college and wants "one last summer job where all I have to do is breathe" before starting life as a stockbroker. He finds it, at the Book Barn, along with ditzy supervisor Phlox (Mena Suvari), who's eager to sleep with him in any section of the store he chooses (Religion & Spirituality is usually pretty empty).
After a meandering night involving pills (this is the '80s, after all), riding in cars with boys and puking on some lawn art, Art ends up at a party. There, he first spots Jane (Sienna Miller), who whacks golf balls seductively between sips of Rolling Rock. Soon, Jane and Art are huddled in a diner with Art's unnecessary voiceover explaining: "When a girl asks you for pie, there's really only one answer." Apparently, that answer is "Let's go get some pie. That's a great idea."
Of course, Jane has a boyfriend, the aforementioned bisexual, low-level gang member Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). After Cleveland arrives to whisk Art away from work on his motorcycle, the three pal around like they've been friends for ages. Cleveland and Jane start squabbling, and Art realizes he is attracted to them both. From there, the three alternate partners several times, occasionally walking in on the other two mid-coitus. Feelings get hurt and the buck stops after a few labored rounds of mix-n-match when Cleveland's card debts catch up with him and somehow Nolte is dragged back into the picture.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh relies on an uninterested performance from Jon Foster that leaves us yearning for even a small helping of the charisma Zach Braff brought to his own man-child fable Garden State. Sarsgaard, one of that film's alums, is at his sleazy-going best, but has little competition in making Cleveland the only fascinating character in the film. Sienna Miller is awfully purdy playing the violin, but we're never sure why her character falls for men who bed men on the side -- or why she and dull Art are attracted to Cleveland, a shifty guy who lets strangers pleasure him in the restroom of punk clubs and mouths off during back-alley scuffles.
To his credit, director and screenwriter Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn't overplay the fact that the film is set in the '80s with easy uses of neon eye shadow or "99 Luftballons" or Oliver North talking about Iran-Contra. Time and place are of little importance here (despite the title), but sadly the performances don't justify calling this a "character study." At the end of the film, uncertainties pile so high that when Art's voiceover returns -- to announce his undefined future plans -- it's almost a relief. If and/or when this film is exported overseas, let's hope cinemas mistranslate the title to the more accurate The Unresolved Ambiguities of Pittsburgh. RATING (out of 10): 3