Most directors' first effort is NOT a huge blockbuster smash of a comedy starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, but that's how writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber hit the scene: with Dodgeball. But based on the filmmaker's second effort, I'm guessing that Thurber took a lot of good-natured ribbing from his film-school friends and decided to snag some "indie cred" by doing a smaller movie for his second feature. That's all well and good, but it's too bad that the resulting movie -- The Mysteries of Pittsburgh -- is such an inert, episodic, and familiar piece of very typical festival fare. It's as if Mr. Thurber watched six Sundance films at random, and then just copied his favorite scenes from each one.

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about the son of an infamous gangster who spends his last summer before "adult life" roaming around with two "free-spirited" pals. The year is 1983, and young Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is at a serious crossroads. Completely opposed to his father's lifestyle, Art (reluctantly) plans to become a stockbroker in a few months' time -- but that means a few open months in which he can A) work at a chintzy discount book store, B) cast lovesick glances towards his new friend Jane (Sienna Miller), and C) become close pals with a bisexual street thug called Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Oh, and D) nail his slightly unhinged boss (Mena Suvari).
If you think the premise already sounds a bit like a watered-down version of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, you're right. And while I've been informed (numerous times tonight) that the source material is a whole lot better than the cinematic version, Thurber's swing for that "indie cred" fails pretty consistently. I can automatically assume that the characters are a lot more multi-dimensional in Chabon's book -- because in the movie they're pretty much a bunch of paper-doll cutouts. And watching them bounce off one another is not exactly an illuminating experience.

As the unrealistically idealistic protagonist, Jon Foster comes across like a lump of vanilla. Sienna Miller plays the Jane character as half-wacky and half-saintly; unfortunately, Ms. Miller is as unconvincing in the role as she is beautiful. (And boy, she's really beautiful.) The only member of the lead trio that adds any sort of life to the proceedings is Peter Sarsgaard as the ever-conflicted Cleveland -- and even his character is seriously old-hat by now. As Art's ultra-moody book store manager, Mena Suvari is stuck in a thankless role: She delivers a few good zingers (and even some indie-friendly nudity), but her character seems to be a tragic figure one second and a freakish buffoon the next. And then she just vanishes entirely.

Nick Nolte pops up once in a while to growl at poor aimless Art; Nolte as a horrifyingly gruff gangster would add a bit of flavor to any movie in the world -- and the actor certainly does that here. But it's not nearly enough to rescue The Mysteries of Pittsburgh from its ceaseless deluge of trite dialog, obvious plot turns, ridiculously contrived developments, and endlessly familiar "coming of age" tropes.

It might have been a whole lot sillier, but Dodgeball is a much better film than this one.