Reading Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I — like, I suspect, most readers — found myself casting the movie in my head. Which is precisely the point: through narrator Art “Son of a Gangster” Bechstein’s perhaps exaggerated setpiece-friendly postcollegiate shenanigans, dabblings in crime and bisexuality, and musings on “the will to bigness”, the then-twentysomething Chabon worked out some resonant ideas about how we mythologize our own youth. Adapting this very cinematic book at last, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber simplifies Chabon’s character configurations into a single triangle built equally out of friendship, worship and lust. He clearly understands Chabon’s romanticism, though as a writer and filmmaker he’s not remotely up to executing the particulars.
As Art, Jon Foster looks like the Abercrombie model version of Tim Hutton, appropriate since there’s a bit of Everybody’s All American in the awe he feels at his induction into the charismatic life of violin-playing Southern belle Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller) and biker bagman Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Is he love with her, him or the idea of Them, is the question; the larger-than-life idea of Them comes through mostly through the archetype-appropriate cast (especially soft-spoken Sarsgaard, recalling my head’s Cleveland, Mickey Rourke), and in charged hangout sessions and sun-soaked hangovers. But Thurber gets little mileage out of Pittsburgh’s beer-can ambience, and his sequences, almost always done in montage, are TV commercial generic: downing shots and pogoing to mallpunk; stripping to skivvies and nightswimming; playing soccer, in the park, with little kids. (In the book there’s a naked game of Twister.) Despite retaining the novel’s 1983 timestamp, Thurber seems to have borrowed Zach Braff’s iPod: you-can-see-us-laughing-but-you-can’t-hear-what-we’re-saying time-lapses are set to Iron and Wine and Ryan Adams. This is a one-crazy-summer movie, apparently — you lose count of how many times Nick Nolte, as Art’s boss-of-bosses dad, asks him what he’s doing with himself “this summer” — but it’s not exactly clear which summer this is. Or, rather, whose: Chabon’s or Thurber’s? Like many literary adaptations, Thurber’s script is burdened with an unnecessarily expository voice-over; is it churlish to ask why, if this was going to be the case, he didn’t simply retain Chabon’s far superior narration, rather than write new platitudes for Art to spout? Because, for a coming-of-age story, Thurber’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh feels weirdly impersonal.