Special performance awards are common at the Sundance Film Festival and here's an idea for this year's jury: Best Undressing - Sienna Miller in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." As Jane, the arty beauty at the core of a confused love triangle between her thug boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and their new friend Art (Jon Foster), Miller flashes a toothy smile, freckly cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. She's the type of woman men die to have, the key plot point in writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," premiering in dramatic competition at Sundance. "Pittsburgh" is an off-target, surprisingly weightless adaptation of Michael Chabon's beloved 1988 novel.
Late into the movie, when Art and Jane become more than friends, Miller undresses beautifully before Art's devoted eyes and it's to her credit that the scene never dissolves into erotic striptease. Actually, it's to the credit of Thurber and cameraman Michael Barrett, who use light, shadows and quiet to create a welcome scene of longing and affection. Miller is pretty to watch. The same is true for "Pittsburgh" but there's not much more to recommend. Never capturing a dramatic rhythm, failing to turn Art into a relatable hero, "Pittsburgh" dissolves into a chain of pretty sequences instead of a coherent, flowing, affecting love story. It lacks the depth and the spirit of Chabon's novel, perhaps an impossible feat to achieve. On its own merits, "Pittsburgh" is a painful misstep, a missed chance by Thurber at telling a great story.
It's early summer 1983 and recent college grad Art Bechstein (Foster) is unsure what to do with his life. All he knows is that he does not want to follow in the footsteps of his gangster father (Nick Nolte). He takes a clerk's job at a discount bookstore and dates his manager (Mena Suvari). Everything changes when Art befriends free spirited couple Jane (Miller) and Cleveland (Sarsgaard). They become inseparable; hitting the punk clubs; drinking too much and becoming more than friends. As Art's estranged father, Nick Nolte shows an emotional strength that the rest of the film sorely lacks. Mena Suvari brings spark and welcome humor to the film as Art's work manager and want-to-be girlfriend. She's a born comedian with librarian hair and wide eyes and one wishes she received more screen time. Miller is eye candy in a role that demands more. The normally reliable Peter Sarsgaard comes off clumsy as Cleveland, never believable as a low-life thug or as a lover to both Art and Jane. Jon Foster, something of a discovery, has a calm voice perfect for the film's frequent narration but is transparent as the film's hero. He offers nothing to grab as Art despite the emotional baggage of his character.
Granted, there are small pleasures throughout the film. "Pittsburgh" is too good of a book not to offer Thurber the chance at a few wonderful moments set among the brown fields and old buildings that comprise a fascinating city that was its height of affluence 100 years ago. Yet, even its few good scenes feel stitched together. 'Pittsburgh" has no flow, no depth and no emotional heft. Just as Thurber's previous directing effort, the Vince Vaughn comedy "Dodgeball" was a series of gags - appropriate for a slapstick comedy - "Pittsburgh" is also a chain of set pieces. In this case, serious drama demands more than Thurber could offer.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.