Dying Gaul, The (2005): Craig (Longtime Companion) Lucas Disappointing Directing Debut

Playwright-screenwriter Craig Lucas (“The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “Longtime Companion,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) makes a disappointing directorial debut with “The Dying Gaul,” a preposterously contrived and senselessly plotted psychological thriller based on his play of the same name.

An incoherent noirish tale, it’s influenced by “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Player,” with touches of a Faustian morality tale of lust, power, corruption, betrayal and revenge set in the seductive world of Hollywood’s power elite.

The gifted Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert Sandrich, a fledgling screenwriter who has been living on the fringes, writing spec scripts to no avail. His life changes, when he is offered a million dollars for his latest, most personal work, “The Dying Gaul,” the raw, autobiographical story of his lover’s death of AIDS. But there’s a catch, the studio thinks the project will be more commercially viable if Robert will only change the dead lover to a woman.

Making the offer is Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a smooth, ruthless, sexually avaricious studio exec, who seduces Robert with the intoxicating Hollywood combo of power, money and sex. Jeffrey’s wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter now ensconced in a Malibu villa with children and plenty of time on her hands, brings the grieving Robert into the family fold, drawn by his talent and his pain.

When Robert confides that he finds solace, both sexual and emotional, in the ghost-like world of chat rooms, the curious Elaine meets him there anonymously. As their online dialogue unfolds, she discovers that Robert and her husband are having an affair. The shock of that revelation, and the unexpected way she responds, sets off a dangerous series of deceptions, confessions and betrayals. Sliding into the conventional histrionics of an overbaked thriller, “Dying Gaul” is full of zigzags, blurring the lines between predator and prey, sadist and victim shift and blur.

Visually, the film contrasts California’s dazzling California sunlight, that bleaches out the palm-lined movie studios and oceanfront estates, with the cold and detached world of cell phones and computers. Trying to be an original post-modern Hollywood noir that’s unsettling and unpredictable, the film loses momentum as it goes along, until it almost self-destructs completely in the last act

The first reel is quite decent, and initially, you’re impressed with Lucas’s skills in honing a precise, interlocking plot, full of ironies, that occasionally proves to be unnerving in its complexity and tone.

A wannabe wicked, emotional roller coaster of a thriller, set in the heady world of the Hollywood elite, “Dying Gaul,” boasts one novelty: Its lead character is a bisexual, though the film’s sexual politics might disturb both gay and bisexual viewers. Although the film concerns a triangle that develops between two powerful Hollywood insiders and a struggling screenwriter, it deteriorates into a senseless movie, as soon as it tries to become a Hitchcockian thriller.

The film offers minor rewards in its effort to steer clear of Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of execs as crass, tasteless, greedy, self-serving, and heartless. And it doesn’t the people who make movies as stupid or venal, instead showing a more conflicted view of people who love the art form of movies but are willing to compromise.

Ultimately, “Dying Gaul” is not a movie about moviemaking. Clearly, Lucas wants to play against one-dimensional stereotypes. The couple at the center of the story is initially appealing, intelligent, and good at what they do. It’s necessary for the couple to be appealing to Robert, a screenwriter with no money, who still bemoans the loss of his lover. The allure of this world–the house, the sea view, the safety or the illusion of safety that money can buy–is understandable.

Another effective element is Lucas’ effort to contest the stereotype of gay man. In many movies, a man grieving over the loss of a lover to AIDS is shown to suffering and always behaves nobly. The media intimate that suffering is ennobling, whereas in actuality, suffering can breed more injustice and cruelty.

For a while, playing against stereotypes and audience expectations makes “Dying Gaul” a tolerable, unpredictable experience. The movie begins to decline in the second reel, most of which depicts the character sitting at their laptop and engaging in erotic conversations in chat rooms.

Unfortunately, the movie reaches absurd notes in the last reel, particularly in a bog emotional scene, in which Jeffrey delivers a monologue about the perils and predicament of being a bisexual. Pity the man whose lot is to sleep with both men and women and complain about it.

If the plot is unconvincing, the characters are quite interesting, at least in the first half of the story. Jeffrey, the exec has a very powerful position at one of the studios, is not a clich the way we think of studio execs as being greedy and slimy characters. Jeffrey’s more complicated than that although he’s deceptive. In fact, all three characters as much deceive others as they deceive themselves.

During the initial chapters, Jeffrey is on top of his game, and in complete control. He has a great wife and he starts this relationship with a man. Jeffrey doesn’t seem to live in a world where there are rules telling him he can’t do things like that. So he embraces his bisexuality, which then unravels until all hell breaks loose. Jeffrey thinks he’s controlling everything, but then, halfway through the yarn, you realize that things are beginning to control him.

Robert’s talent, good looks, and humor make him attractive to both Jeffrey and Elaine. It all starts off like a goof but then it gets deeper and disturbing. And although Jeffrey remains dedicated to his family, he gets in a little over his head with Robert. Then Elaine and Robert fall for each other too because she’s a writer as well and they meet on that level.

It’s a cool triangle, in which all members seem to be equal. Elaine’s comfortable life is shattered during the course of the film, and Clarkson brings a lot of power to this woman who also unravels. Sarsgaard’s Robert starts off kind of at a loss, opposite from Jeffrey and Elaine, and then actually gets stronger, ending up being the most stable of the trio.

All three actors are determined not to make villains out of their characters, and it’s their intelligence as performers that elevates the film to a watchable level. Their sensitive interpretations make their characters more humane, stressing their basic yearning to lead better, more fulfilling. Yet somehow, when they come into contact with one another, an inevitable pull drags them into terribly messy and entangled relationships

The relationship between Elaine and Jeffrey is different than most marriages portrayed in American movies. They’ve been married for a while and have a nice, comfy relationship. Bright, creative, and self-spirited, Jeffrey and Elaine stimulate each other in different ways. They have a very European marriage, an open marriage that’s rarely seen in America. Although Jeffrey and Elaine may have an atypical marriage, Jeffrey’s affair with Robert shocks Elaine and her response sets off a tragic chain of events.

Elaine learns of the affair when she anonymously meets Robert online in a gay chat room. She thereupon ventures into the chat room and starts emailing Robert initially out of curiosity, before it escalates into something else and out of control. There are too many sequences depicting the characters with their laptops, and since it’s an isolated activity, these scenes increasingly get repetitious and tedious.

This Faustian morality play is not without its own ironies. Robert has basically agreed to chop off his left arm for a million dollars. The script he’s written is about two men in love, one of whom has AIDS. And Jeffrey wants Robert to change it to a man and a woman. Hence, Jeffrey and Robert’s affair is ironic. Jeffrey had asked Robert to make his screenplay not homosexual, but then engages in a homosexual affair with him.

Robert’s scenario, titled “The Dying Gaul,” is inspired by the famous Roman statue of a wounded Gaulic warrior who lies on the ground awaiting death. Although it was the Romans who fought the Gauls in the third century B.C., the Roman sculptor displays not triumph but sorrow at the horror and senselessness of war. All three characters understand and show what it means to try to hold on to the thing you love the most, and yet how easy it is to throw it away for the right amount of money.

Though the sexual angle may be new, “The Dying Gaul” aspires–but doesn’t succeed in adding a panel to the growing body of dark, incisive movies about screenwriters in Hollywood, from such classics as Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place,” and Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” to such recent films as Altman’s “The Player” the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” Unless, you decide to disregard the film’s second half and concentrate on the first, which explores quite vividly the dangerous dynamics that come into play in a world where ideals are sacrificed in the name of commerce and where the lure of sex, power, money, and glamour is almost irresistible.