'Mysteries of Pittsburgh' premieres

Written by Barbara Vancheri on .


 As Arthur Lecomte likes to say: "Some people really know how to have a good time."

On Sunday, that meant going to the one-time showing of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" at the Regent Square Theater, a bonus at the end of the Three Rivers Film Festival courtesy of Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

One woman, surveying the line stretching down South Braddock Avenue and dog-legging past the Sunoco gas station, muttered, "This is like ‘Star Wars.' "

Or, in teen parlance, "Twilight."

In the end, just over 300 lucky people got inside the theater and another 150 were turned away - and "Mysteries" doesn't even have a vampire with heavenly hair.

Of course it also doesn't have Arthur Lecomte. He is noticeably absent from the movie based on the 1988 novel by University of Pittsburgh graduate Michael Chabon. Lecomte's ghost (sort of) inhabits Cleveland Arning, played by Peter Sarsgaard. And, if you're a purist about these things, that is just one of the changes from the book.

"Mysteries" is set in 1983 and stars Jon Foster as Art Bechstein, spending the summer in suspension between college graduation and real life and caught in a romantic triangle with Cleveland and Jane (Sienna Miller), his girlfriend and an aspiring concert violinist. The cast also includes Mena Suvari as Phlox, Art's sometime girlfriend, and Nick Nolte as his gangster father.

Only in Pittsburgh, would the line, "I'm starving, do you want to stop at the O?" merit applause. And only in Pittsburgh, perhaps, would moviegoers sneer and jeer when Miller's character suggests she and Cleveland should leave and go "anywhere that isn't Pittsburgh."

That's because no one has forgotten that Miller insulted the city in Rolling Stone magazine and later got into a kerfuffle over admission to a South Side bar without proper ID. Both incidents were recounted, with relish, by people standing in line.

"Mysteries" filmed around the city for more than two months in 2006. It seemed consigned to limbo while other movies, such as "Smart People" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," hustled their way into theaters.

It finally has a distributor, which means it should open here in early 2009. If that happens, a full review will run in the paper and on our website but applause at the movie's end on Sunday was lukewarm, at best.

Director-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber brought a fresh eye to the city and "Mysteries" is a good-looking movie. It's just not the same story that prompted critics to declare the novel astonishing, remarkable and extraordinary.

In an interview over coffee at the Omni William Penn in October 2006, Thurber explained eliminating the Lecomte character this way: "It always seemed to me a more efficient cinematic engine to employ a love triangle versus what exists in the book, which is a four-pointed rhombus, for lack of a better term."

In other changes, he shot the famous "cloud factory" in Rankin, eliminated the Hillman Library location and turned Phlox into Art's boss at the discount book store. Still, he said he tried to capture the novel's heart and spirit.

"Mysteries" debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Variety's Dennis Harvey said it was a surefooted screen translation that "will likely irk diehard fans of the book, as helmer-adaptor Rawson Marshall Thurber takes considerable liberties and arrives at a more conventional general tone.

"Still, this engaging '80s flashback embroiling a hitherto vanilla protagonist with some wild characters during one heady summer has appeal for straight and gay 20- to 40-something auds."

Duane Byrge from The Hollywood Reporter called it a "reverential and smart distillation" in which Thurber captured the essence of the coming-of-age novel. "Undoubtedly, literal-minded readers of the novel will be disrupted by the film's shrewd condensation of characters, but select-site audiences will warm to the craftsmanship and storytelling."

Byrge said the film's "glossy sheen and artful compositions are often distracting, bracketed by seeming calendar shots for a Pennsylvania tourism office." And that's a problem how?

In the end, Sarsgaard is probably the best thing about "Mysteries," although a dark-haired, haggard-looking Nolte proves very capable as a cold-hearted mobster. Foster is oddly bland and tossing in a bit of narration just reminds us how much we miss Chabon's original text.



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