Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a Review

Mysteries of Pittsburgh is available OnDemand now. I thought I'd give it a careful look this time.
It's a tricky thing, this watching-film-based-on-literature thing as the viewer already had a preconceived notion of plot in mind.
Michael Chabon's first novel by the same title served as the inspiration for this film. Loose inspiration. Very loose.
As I was informed by a HetPer reader who also kindly sent me the screenplay to this film a few months ago this production was a rather sophomoric attempt.
I agree with him now.
But the film still has one important redeeming quality. I'll explain.

I gave the screenplay a looksee and it did seem to differ much from the novel. But then again, filmic adaptation is supposed to bring a number of differences and much novelty with it.

You see what makes Michael Chabon so brilliant is his infallible instinct about gender and gendered traits. Few authors can decode gender and sexuality the way he can. Naturally, his unique instinct is rather challenging to translate on the big screen and some understanding is required when judging any director's effort who attempts to adapt him.

One of the things that bothered me about Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the film, was the fact that they completely erased an entire character, Arthur.
Another thing which sort of relates to the first plot problem listed, is that the character of Cleveland who in the book is portrayed as rather heteronormative was turned into the love object of both Jane and Art.
Bad decision there.

Even though the usually brilliant Peter Saarsgard played Cleveland, it still left me, the reader/viewer wanting for more. A waste of talent, really.
One of the things that makes the book so poetic is the Art/Arthur relationship. This is at the very core of the book and it is entirely left out.
Ah, and then there's the Sienna Miller-played Jane who is too much in the center of the film. Miller has range but in this case her range was a little too wide. Less of her would have been more for the overall film.

Mena Suvari's Phlox could have been used more as the few minutes she's on the screen she does somehow bring you back to the novel. Suvari's version of Phlox looks like the French major Phlox in the book. Alas, she wasn't used enough.

And then there's Nick Nolte's 'Dad' character who could have been clothed with better lines but, of course, wasn't.
The one thing that delivers in this film is the city of Pittsburgh itself. I am lucky to be one of those people who gets the area and its references. This is a part of the country that one needs to see/experience to get. The heavy industrial traces of huge bridges and once productive factories are captured well enough in this film. They're not captured the way Curtis Hanson so brilliantly did in his version of the Chabon-inspired Wonder Boys, however.

Cities like Pittsburgh are difficult to capture for the big screen as they are truly multilayered. Even though they ooze concrete urban and industrial vibes, they're also somehow rustic. It's an odd combo but it's also what makes this neck of the woods so uniquely beautiful.
Even though geographically I tend to privilege the West, there's something truly poetic about Pittsburgh. It's one of those places where literature can get inspired.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh has many cinematic flaws.
It's one redeeming quality, however, is its capturing of Pittsburgh.
After those of you whom I know in real life have had a chance to see this film, I know I'll most likely receive texts saying, 'I liked the book better.'
As you should.
However, I find myself espousing a kind of compassionate leniency that's informed by one thing and one thing alone: Pittsburgh.

subscribe Subscribe to HetPer

subscribe Subscribe to Gendering the Media Podcast


Dana said...

This movie almost seemed like an apologetic version of the book.
The actors seemed disjointed and that's because the screenplay is fundamentally flawed.
The book is amazing. The film isn't.
I liked the bit you wrote about Pittsburgh, though.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite see how Cleveland was morphed into Arthur. Hmm. But will catch this for sure.

JJ said...

I am a fan of the book so I will give this a shot. Pittsburgh has such character!

Becca said...

What do you think of the fact that they completely left out the Arthur character? I mean they obviously didn't shy away from the uber-gendered premise of the book so why get rid of one of the most pivotal characters of the book?

Becca said...

The Pittsburgh of Wonder Boys was much better captured than the Pittsburgh in here.
I also dig the bit about Pittsburgh and how you see it as a marriage of urban/rustic.

Sra said...

Based on your recommendation, I did read Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I also saw this film a few months ago. I enjoyed both, actually.

The film does take a number of liberties, but I can understand why it does what it does. To me, the relationships in the book are quite complex to portray in such a short film, and I think by combining the characters of Cleveland and Arthur, the film simplifies things. I'm also not sorry that the character of Phlox was abbreviated, because I found her truly vexing in the book. Wanted to punch her annoying lights out. Couldn't see what Art saw in her. Jane in the film kind of takes over much of the role that Phlox plays in the book, and I think this, too, is an attempt to simplify a set of relationships that might be too complex to portray in the film as it is done in the book.

Anyway, when evaluating films based on books, I try to not rely too much on comparison, but try to evaluate the film on its own merits, because the film necessarily can't be the same as the book. Even true adaptations must diverge somewhat because the format of film is different and has different needs.

Overall, I found the film entertaining. It's not brilliant, but I liked it.

I know nothing of Pittsburgh, however.

Anonymous said...

I didn't so much find an adaptation problem as I did a cinematic execution one with this film.

Anonymous said...

Chabon is great on the big screen. He's such a complex author, though. It takes the efforts of truly talented directors to take him on. Curtis Hanson did so brilliantly with Wonder Boys because he got to the very core of the novel's core character, the city itself.

Anonymous said...

Oh, do you know when the adaptation of J M Coetzee's Disgrace is coming out?