The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Comb through the program guide at any independent film festival and you’ll find 10 movies exactly like “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” Why, it’s about a directionless college graduate who spends a summer finding himself! And he has a disapproving father! And he fantasizes about avoiding responsibility and taking a menial job instead! And he experiments with his sexuality! It’s totally “indie,” man.

It’s pretty unfortunate, because the 1988 Michael Chabon novel it’s based on is wistful and lovely and not at all generic. Chabon is a gifted writer who can describe commonplace situations and feelings in a way that makes them seem fresh and insightful. This film version was adapted and directed by the guy who made “Dodgeball.” Did no one see the red flags here?

Set in 1983, it’s the story of Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), a smart, introspective young man whose economics degree has put him on a path toward being a stock broker. He must take the Series 7 test first, and in the meantime he’s spending the summer working at a bookstore (no pressure, no real responsibility) and occasionally having sex with his boss (ditto). The boss, improbably named Phlox (Mena Suvari), takes their rendezvous a little more seriously, but that’s not his problem, is it?

At a party one night, Art meets Jane (Sienna Miller), and shortly thereafter Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), her insane, unpredictable boyfriend. Cleveland is involved with some shady characters and feels a kinship with Art because Art’s dad (Nick Nolte) is, well, a mobster. Art tends to keep that on the down-low, confining his relationship with his dad to a monthly dinner and nothing more.

Art, Jane, and Cleveland spend the summer partying and horsin’ around, with Art frequently feeling like a third wheel. A romantic triangle develops, and it has more than one permutation. Cleveland’s bisexuality (or at least his “anything goes” attitude) is established early on; out of nowhere, more or less, comes Art’s interest in exploring that side of himself.

I don’t question writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s fondness for Chabon’s novel, which Thurber has reportedly been trying to make into a film for a decade. But in moving it from the page to the screen he has eroded nearly all of its sublime wisdom and charming coming-of-age humor. Some very sensitive issues are handled with finesse in the novel, indelicately on the screen. Some things are just easier to express with words than with pictures.

(Surely it does not help that Thurber did away with one major character altogether, folding his part of the story into the character of Cleveland — where it doesn’t fit at all.)

Above all, the film lacks a soul. It does not appear to “mean” anything, though it very obviously wants to. Jon Foster’s performance as Art is rather inert, and that unfortunately befits a movie that’s pretty lifeless itself. But it’s not bad, except in comparison to the novel. It’s simply unoriginal and unmemorable, like so many of its film festival brethren.

C (1 hr., 40 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, several bits of strong sexuality, some nudity, a little violence.)