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LAist at Sundance: The Home Stretch

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Photo courtesy of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival

As one of my favorite bloggers Jeffrey Wells recently wrote, "The Sundance Film Festival is a 10-day event, but it's always over as of Wednesday morning...the voltage turns down, there are fewer people on Main Street, all the presumably hot titles (i.e., name casts, advance-hyped) have been screened." Park City actually becomes a manageable town again and tickets that were impossible to get a few days ago can usually be had for less than face value. With that in mind, I decided to blow off the morning's press screenings and head out with a group of friends to see a film I'd been closed out of earlier, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Based on (somewhat loosely from what I've read) Michael Chabon's novel of the same title, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh takes place during the pivotal summer of Art Bechstein's (Jon Foster) life. While spending the summer studying for his Series 7 exam, he takes a minimum-wage job at a crappy bookstore and quickly slips into a sexual affair with his horny supervisor, Phlox (wonderfully played by Mena Suvari). Soon, though, he meets the devilish Jane (Sienna Miller) and Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and together the three of them spend a wild summer discovering the underbelly of Pittsburgh. It's a summer of love, betrayals, fights, laughter, friendship, death--imagine the most intense experience of your life and squeeze it into a tight, little ball.

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Photo courtesy of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival

In a sense, that's the big problem with the film. While I admired it, I didn't really love it because--despite all the frantic living going on--there was never a true sense of why these three people were so inseparable. They say they love each other, they make love to each other, but I never felt that there was any actual love there. In a film that is almost purely about relationships, I never felt anything genuine in my gut. When tragedy ultimately befalls them all, it didn't draw any emotion from me. Furthermore, the unusually strong gangster subplot--which may have worked perfectly well in the book--is needlessly disruptive in the film. The films asks you to believe that Art is the son of a powerful gangster, but I didn't buy it whatsoever. Considering the film's last act demands that you accept this premise, the conclusion lost a great deal of impact for me.

I had a similar issue with my last film of the festival, Pretty Bird. It was directed by one of my favorite actors, Paul Schneider, and despite a great start the film petered out to a flimsy conclusion. The film opens with Curtis Prentiss (Billy Crudup) stumbling out of the ocean and crashing onto the shore. He is, as we quickly learn, a bit of a con artist and within minutes of arriving to town he manages to convince his old friend, Kenny (David Hornsby), that he's come up with a doozy of an idea. That idea is to hire a rocket scientist and build a rocket belt (oh yeah, did I mention that Pretty Bird is a bit precious and twee?) The two of them do, in fact, hire a rocket scientist (Paul Giamatti) and they actually do manage to build a rocket belt. This is where the problems began.

Up until the moment of the first successful rocket belt flight, I was captured by the strange imagination of the story. Sure, it was a little fanciful but not overly so, and it was nice to watch a movie that was so aggressively unique in its storytelling. After the rocket belt flight, though, the movie took a dark turn which felt completely out of sync with the rest of the film. Paul Schneider was actually at the screening and mentioned that he wanted to make a film that explored the dark side of ambition. Pretty Bird certainly does that, but in doing so sacrifices the wonderful sense of whimsy and invention that the first part of the film so expertly created. The movie ends almost abruptly, and I walked out of the screening feeling deeply unsatisfied. Had Schneider stayed with the impulse that created the first two-thirds of Pretty Bird I think he would have had a real winner. As it is, it's just okay.