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Written & Directed by
Rawson Marshall Thurber, based on the novel by Michael Chabon
Produced by
Thor Benander, Jason Mercer, Michael London & Thurber
Released by Peace Arch Entertainment/Groundswell Productions
USA. 95 min. Rated R
Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Nick Nolte & Mena Suvari

Art (Jon Foster) wants to hide from his friends and co-workers that his father Joe “The Egg” Bechstein (Nick Nolte) is the financial consigliere to the local mob. Meanwhile, the intimidating Tony Soprano-like patriarch wants to keep his college-educated scion on the white-collar straight and narrow, whatever it takes. During a long, hot summer in the 1980’s, he demands progress reports at their obligatory monthly dinners, and the hangdog Art is not measuring up. He barely moves books working at a discount book store and barely studies for a stockbroker license.

He is grateful that the women he falls in with are oblivious to his background—his hectoring boss and demanding sex partner Phlox (Mena Suvari as strident comic relief) and golden party girl Jane Bellweather (Sienna Miller replaying her familiar, delicately vulnerable alcoholic). But Jane’s shaggy boyfriend Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard), who freelances as a low-level hood to finance his gambling habits, recognizes Art’s family name, and finds that connection irresistible.

The complicated relationships from Michael Chabon’s debut novel are pared down to a hot triangle beyond the safe bromances of writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s previous film, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. In addition to Nolte’s anchor, the strongest scenes come directly from the book and mostly center on the magnetic Cleveland. Sarsgaard has been fearlessly sexy in films from The Center of the World on through Kinsey, and he revels in a character who attracts all eyes and mouths from his first entry on screen as a leather-clad biker bad boy. But Sarsgaard also can suddenly let the fear and anxiety slip through, even in what is practically a restaging of Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world!” climax from Raoul Walsh‘s White Heat.

The reactive Art’s ongoing narration is far too much of an explanatory crutch to parse the roundelay of identity exploration, and a heavy-handed reference to the outsider’s voice in The Great Gatsby. While the film strives to be sympathetic to the women, the quirkiness they had in the book flattens out into lovelorn dependency. However, Michael Barrett‘s lovely cinematography highlights the industrial setting, bridges, rivers, and streetscapes of Pittsburgh more evocatively than the script's portrayal of the characters, who have bare back story and are dwarfed by the setting. Barrett succeeds in making it look like there’s no mystery why any restless young adult would want to leave town.

Despite being set in the same city, in the same post-graduate time of life, and almost the same summer as Greg Mottola’s sweeter Adventureland, the soundtrack is devoid of its period context, other than one punk club scene. Instead, Theodore Shapiro’s score is overpoweringly sentimental and annoyingly incorporates the same incessant piano leitmotif over the sweat burnished love scenes. Chabon’s first novel only hinted at his later literary accomplishments, so perhaps this film adaptation will say the same for Thurber. Nora Lee Mandel
April 10, 2009



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