A surefooted screen translation of Michael Chabon’s beloved 1988 debut novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” 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 twenty-to-fortysomething auds. It should prove capable of performing on the upper end of limited-release figures before decent sales on disc and cable.
Attractive, innocuous Art (Jon Foster) is worlds away from the widowed father with whom he has strained monthly dinners: Joe Bechstein (Nick Nolte), a New England mobster followed everywhere by FBI agents. Dad has arranged for his just-graduated son to start a job within “the family.” To Art, that means “I’ve got three months to live” — a normal life, that is, as opposed to the unpleasantly semi-criminal future mapped out for him.
Economics major Art has elected to stay in Pittsburgh — at college — to study for the exam required for U.S. broker-dealers, while he works for minimum wage among proles at the discount Book Barn. His days are enlivened, to coworkers’ amusement, by manager Phlox (Mena Suvari) regularly paging him for sex in the store’s stockroom, among other areas. Yet even this seemingly no-strings involvement begins to strike Art as just another obligation somebody else chose for him.
Things start to change when erstwhile freshman roommate Mohammed (Omid Abtahi) hauls Art to a party where he meets the beauteous Jane (Sienna Miller), an aspiring concert violinist. She’s quick to point out she has a boyfriend — yet invites Art out for latenight pie.
The next day, a motorcycle-helmeted figure shows up at the Book Barn and ominously insists Art join him for a “ride.” The young man assumes this is tied to dad’s gangland world, preparing for the worst. But the abductor turns out to be Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), Jane’s older b.f. He enjoys fooling Art into thinking he’s due for a jealous beatdown, then simply sweeps the kid into the couple’s manic-thrill-seeking lifestyle.
While undeniably attracted to Jane, Art is no less intrigued by the mercurial, charismatic, somewhat mysterious Cleveland, who has apparent underworld ties of his own and a very flexible sexual identity. The trio have some giddy times together (prompting hell-hath-no-fury response from the shut-out Phlox), punctuated by unexpected erotic tensions, the hetero couple’s frequent fights, and, eventually, danger brought about by Cleveland’s gambling debts. Art’s attempt to fix the latter by begging help from dad triggers the tale’s suspenseful final lap.
These “Mysteries” have been considerably rejiggered from book to film, eliminating key character Arthur Lecompte and, ergo, somewhat downplaying the bi/homosexual aspects of the book (though Art and Cleveland do end up in bed together). The full warmth and idiosyncrasy of Chabon’s original is missed in an adaptation that feels more impersonally observed. But Lawson’s pic, (with the director making a left turn from prior feature “Dodgeball,” which he says was a money gig undertaken to hasten this dream project) is entertaining and involving enough on its own terms.
Foster comes off as a somewhat bland, preppie protag, too unlike his father for credence and an unlikely play-partner choice for his wild new friends — but the book requires similar suspension of disbelief. Miller is OK, but the movie is sparked by Sarsgaard, who’s seldom uninteresting but really gets a chance to burn on all cylinders. Nolte mixes paternal tough-love and genuine threat to sharp effect in his few scenes.
Location-shot pic has a handsome look that doesn’t oversell the ’80s trappings. Theodore Shapiro’s rather routinely earnest score is supplanted by diverse soundtracked pop tunes.