Peter Sarsgaard as Robert
Campbell Scott as Jeffrey
Patricia Clarkson as Elaine
Robin Bartlett as Bella
Linda Emond as Dr. Foss
Ryan Miller as Max
Craig Lucas’ directorial debut starts off well, but quickly goes downhill, changing into something so dull that even its illustrious cast can’t help save it.
Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) has just sold his screenplay “The Dying Gaul” to Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a Hollywood studio producer who wants Robert more than just for his writing, and Robert suddenly finds himself caught in a dangerous love triangle between Jeffrey and his wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter.
You would think that a movie with the amazing cast of Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard–I almost feel like there should be exclamation points after each of their names–and written by a highly talented playwright like Craig Lucas (“The Secret Lives of Dentists”) would be a clear-cut winner. On paper, this very personal film from Lucas should have been a masterpiece, but something happened on the way to the cinema.
It starts out like a scene from Robert Altman’s “The Player” with screenwriter Robert Sandrich meeting Jeffrey, a movie studio producer of questionable morals, played by Campbell Scott. Jeffrey loves Robert’s script “The Dying Gaul,” about a writer dealing with the death of his gay lover, except that he feels the gender of the lover needs to be changed. After all, this is 1995 and Hollywood isn’t nearly as “gay friendly” as they are these days. Robert, who blames himself for the death of his love to AIDS, is still pretty fragile, so he’s easily manipulated into a sexual relationship with Jeffrey. When Jeffrey’s wife Elaine finds out about their affair, she starts to mess with Robert, stalking him in online chatrooms and pretending to be the ghost of his ex-lover.
At first, it seems like “The Dying Gaul” will give Lucas a chance to show audiences the inner workings of Hollywood and the pervasive homophobia from the eyes of an insider. Instead, “The Dying Gaul” is a rather bland thriller that never delivers on the promise of the opening scene or the possibilities of such an interesting setting. Lucas does a good job recreating the noir vibe of Hitchcock’s ’50s and ’60s thrillers, but the modern aspects of the story, like internet chatting, destroy the illusion.
To put it bluntly, the way Lucas handles the internet chatting is a joke. It just doesn’t work at all. Essentially, we watch Clarkson and Sarsgaard typing away at their computers with out-of-sync sound effects dubbed over them, and then there’s a disassociated voice reading what each of them is typing. It’s so awkward that it kills any chance of emotion in the scenes. Far better confused-gender internet chats were used in “Closer” and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and for someone who spends far too much time chatting online–not in sex chatrooms, so get your mind out of the gutter–it’s just not believable. It’s even worse when Robert figures out what we already know and tries to catch Elaine pretending to be his mysterious online angel.
It’s hard not to overlook the fact that director Norman René, Lucas’ “partner” who filmed his first three screenplays, passed away from AIDS around the same time that this story is supposed to take place, but even knowing this doesn’t help one to sympathize with Robert’s plight. Not that Sarsgaard’s performance is any lesser than previous ones. He’s good, as are the other two lead actors, and considering the number of effeminate and sensitive men he’s played, it’s easy to believe him as a gay man. At times, he takes that a bit over the top, though, and Robert is sometimes in danger of being a stereotype himself. As much as I like him and Campbell Scott as actors, I really didn’t need to see them doing a nude scene together. I guess it was done to make up for the scenes with Patricia Clarkson in a white bikini, showing that she’s in amazing shape for a woman her age.
While the dialogue is as strong as Lucas’ previous efforts, it doesn’t help the film from falling flat, even with the solid performances. It’s pretty disappointing, because one would hope Lucas could use his directorial debut to confront important personal and social issues, and while some of them are there, they tend to get lost in a rather trite story. On top of that, the film’s ending is so awful and grim that any benefit of the doubt you’re willing to give the movie goes out the window. It’s just not a good ending.
The Bottom Line:
This is such a personal project for Craig Lucas that you almost have to have lost a loved one to AIDS to fully appreciate Robert’s journey. That said, the simplistic nature of the character and the plot of this thriller makes the whole thing such a dreary affair that it kills any chances of it having any emotional impact.
The Dying Gaul opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.