By a strange quirk of distribution, two lazy summer coming-of-age pictures set in mid-'80s Pittsburgh arrive within weeks of each other: Gregg Mattola's warm and wondrous Adventureland is a big studio comedy that takes itself a bit too seriously whereas Mysteries of Pittsburgh is an all-too-earnest indie drama in dire need of laughs.
Seemingly assembled from the remnants of better movies, but with its own weirdo energy, Mysteries is undermined by the chalkboard blankness of its hero, played listlessly by handsome cipher Jon Foster (The Informers). The son of a tasteful, upscale crime boss (Nick Nolte), Art Bechstein is a college grad headed for a prepackaged stockbroker career who decides to spend his last free summer idling at home. He takes a mindless clerk job at the discount Book Barn, where he bangs Mena Suvari all day in the stockroom. But he's the type of drip who'd rather chase after the blandly gorgeous Jane (Sienna Miller) — the sort of aloof blond Shiksa goddess who's been haunting the wet dreams of mushy literary protagonists forever. Jane is only one corner of a romantic triangle, which is completed by her boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming, omnisexual thug who has a bizarre psychological and erotic hold on Art. Sarsgaard is getting a bit long in the tooth to play boyish rouges, but he's compelling — though this role is more sinister than his in Garden State.
Mysteries has been getting a critical drubbing that's a bit harsh; it's not an awful film, just wobbly, and not appreciably worse than the scores of similarly themed indies that clog up the festival circuit year after year. It's handsomely shot and mostly well acted, Suvari and Nolte stand out in nothing parts; Sienna Miller is her usual blah pretty self. Where the gag factor overwhelms is in the monotone narration that makes Michael Chabon's lofty prose seem turgid. Director Thurber aims for a poetic feel to a story that maybe doesn't warrant it, and if you haven't read the esteemed novel, this film's charms might remain a mystery.
Open Friday, April 17, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].