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Movie Review

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Attempt at adaptation unravels in 'Mysteries'

Jon Foster and Sienna Miller in Rawson Marshall Thurber's ''The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.'' Jon Foster and Sienna Miller in Rawson Marshall Thurber's ''The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.'' (Sundance film festival)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," sure. But also the mysteries of literary adaptation. Michael Chabon's earnest first novel from 1988 about a young man's bisexual coming of age is now what could pass for a flavorless pilot for the CW. Almost nothing works in this movie, which was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, whose previous film, the antic "Dodgeball," would be a hundred times more preferable come prep-school movie night.

Like many young people, Thurber appears to have fallen in love with Chabon's book (its finest moments perfectly capture the thwack of attraction). Unlike those other readers, Thurber got the book's rights and proceeded to conflate and excise characters and scenarios until only the most generic possible movie remained.

We still have the story of Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), a recent college graduate, studying one summer for his Series 7 stockbroker exam (the movie is set in the mid-1980s), dating the manager of the bookstore where he works (Mena Suvari), and trying to please his father, a gangster played by Nick Nolte. Sadly, Art seems a passive observer of his life. This could be a matter of Foster's mild approach to acting. It's as if Thurber decided to scour the nation's top lacrosse teams for a lead. It could be the fact that the film relies so heavily on poor Foster to recite large paragraphs of Chabon's manuscript. The scenes feel plunked down between narration, so no true rhythm can get going. Really, Foster just isn't very interesting to watch.

Of course, under the circumstances, neither are Peter Sarsgaard and Sienna Miller, who speed into the proceedings as Cleveland, a mid-level thug in a leather jacket, and his girlfriend, Jane. These two rope Art into their ho-hum adventures (drinking, leaping into pools, sitting around). But why should we care about anybody who chooses to spend the livelong day with Art? At some point it's clear that Cleveland likes Art in a way that has nothing to do with Jane. The consummation of their attraction occupies the film's second half, and gives the movie its only shot at honesty, although their interest in each other makes no sense. It's like Richie Cunningham making love to The Fonz. In the novel, Art fell for a different, more convincing man. The movie gives us a bad fantasy. It's conceivable that you could leave this movie thinking it had been adapted from a teenage boy's diary.

Thurber is clearly taken with these people, but he lacks the imagination to pass his enthusiasm on to us. Frolicking montages set to Ryan Adams and Iron & Wine tell us more about the contents of Thurber's iPod than about the inner lives of his characters. For what it's worth, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" follows "The Great Buck Howard" and "Adventureland" as another wishy-washy portrait of a kid wandering across adulthood's threshold. None of these movies incorporates a kind of rearview wisdom or successfully re-creates any oscillation between the electricity and doldrums of youth. Our heroes insist these are the times that will define them, but the movies themselves are dull and interchangeably vague.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH Written and directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber, adapted from the novel by Michael Chabon

Starring: Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, and Nick Nolte

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexuality, nudity, and language)