The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 tape.

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 money.

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.

Never mind.

DVD Blu-Ray


2 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
14 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
38 (of 100)


5.3 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. Twenty theaters, $80,000.




Lots of nudity:

Sienna Miller (buns in full-length rear nudity)

Mena Suvari (breasts in some quick sex scenes)

Jon Foster (buns, in bed with Sarsgaard)

Some other woman (breasts)




Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is just OK, no better. It should have concentrated less on being faithful to the book, and more on being a movie.