From my own selfish perspective, this film should have been a winner.
It would have made for a great article. The director is an indie auteur
who didn't have enough money to acquire the rights to a Michael Chabon
novel and to film it the way he hoped to. So he saved his pennies for
years and worked as a hired gun on any mass audience project with a good
paycheck, until he finally had enough money to self-finance his dream
project. He bought the rights, wrote the screenplay, produced, directed,
and probably cooked for the crew. He also assembled a fairly impressive
B-list cast which included Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Nick Nolte and
Mena Suvari. He actually shot the film in Pittsburgh.
Look at the indie cachet. What locale could be better than Pittsburgh,
which is virtually the birthplace of the modern indie film, the city where
George Romero shot many films, including two of the best indies of all
time: Knightriders and Night of the Living Dead? What star could be better
to tap into the indie vibe than Sarsgaard, a fine young actor who would
rather appear in a meritorious film or play than collect a good paycheck?
All the stars were in alignment.
The only problem is that the film really isn't very good. Entered into
competition at Sundance in 2008, it picked up some scathing reviews,
failed to draw a distribution deal, and disappeared for more than a year,
when it popped up on 20 screens in April of 2009 and grossed a grand total
of $79,000. Next stop: DVD in August.
What went wrong? I suppose a dozen critics would have a dozen different
opinions, but as I see it, the film has two critical flaws:
1. It is too literary, insufficiently cinematic. The screenwriter had
so much respect for Chabon's prose that he retained a large chunk of it as
narration. There is so much narration that it's almost unnecessary to
watch the screen. The film could be offered to the blind as a book on
2. The film might have survived despite the incessant voice-overs, but
there was a bigger problem. I will catch some hell for this, I suppose,
but the real problem was Peter Sarsgaard. As I mentioned, he is a fine
actor, and I'm sure he delivered the role as he envisioned it.
Unfortunately, that characterization stripped all credibility out of an
already improbable story, and robbed the film of its proper dynamic. His
character was supposed to be a low-level mobster who was bisexual. He gets
involved in a three-way relationship with another bisexual man and a
straight woman who loves them both. The characters have sex in all
combinations. In order for Sarsgaard's character to work, he has to be
both charismatic and intimidating. Sarsgaard brought charisma to the role,
but played him swishy: the kind of lisping, mincing guy who would command
no respect from anyone, and who would certainly
not be welcome in the company of mobsters. Sarsgaard did to this role what
another great actor, Marlon Brando, did to Fletcher Christian: he stripped
away all the testosterone. Let's face it, nobody is intimidated by Lyle,
the effeminate heterosexual. You think this guy would be out collecting
protection money? This guy couldn't have intimidated Les Nessman. If he
walked past a playground, the bullies would beat him up for his lunch
Would the film have worked if Sarsgaard's character appeared to be
really rugged and intimidating, then turned out to be bisexual? That
depends on your definition of "worked." That might have helped to make it
a good film, but I can't tell you that such a change would have
made this a successful film. Coming-of-age dramas usually
concentrate on everyman characters who are looking at an uncertain future.
The audience has to be able to identify with the everyman. This storyline
involves the son of the head of the Pittsburgh mob who is headed for a
sure-fire six-figure job in his uncle's brokerage firm. While studying for
his brokerage exam in the summer after college graduation, he gets
involved with a boho young couple and ends up falling in love with both of
them. Of course, you could make a good film out of that story. You can make
a good film out of almost anything. But it would be very difficult to make
a successful film, one which would appeal to a wide audience, if the
everyman character, the one who represents you and me, lives a privileged
life and is pictured having romantic sex with a guy. That reduces the
appeal and makes it the kind of film which opens in 20 theaters, then
disappears, even if it is quite brilliant.
So I guess it didn't really matter too much whether it was good.