“No one is ever going to see ‘The Dying Gaul,’” a character remarks early on in Craig Lucas’ filmization of his own play, and while that’s probably an overstatement, the picture’s combination of pretentiousness and banality might make it closer to the truth than its makers might like. On one level it’s a romantic triangle with a gay twist, and on another a commentary on artistic and personal integrity; but its oddly sterile atmosphere and emotional hollowness leave it feeling empty on both.
The basically three-character piece, set in the mid-ninties, involves a married couple and an outsider. The latter is Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, a beard rather strikingly altering his usual clean-shaven appearance), a playwright who’s written a screenplay titled after the famous Hellenistic statue and based on his relationship with his lover (and agent) Malcolm (Bill Camp), whose death as a result of AIDS has left him emotionally devastated. Studio exec Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) loves the script, but explains to Robert that it can’t possibly be filmed unless the couple is made heterosexual. Robert angrily rejects the suggestion, but is ultimately persuaded to rewrite the piece (which would presumably necessitate a change of title, too, though that’s never indicated) because the million-dollar offer would allow him to pay off his huge debts (as well as help his ex-wife raise their young son). The sell-out only makes him feel even more guilty than he already does (for reasons that will be made clear in due course), however, and so even as he grows closer to Jeffrey and his gracious wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), who’s also a writer–visiting them to socialize in their modernistic hillside mansion, as well as accompanying them to test screenings–he thinks of himself as having stained his love for Malcolm. Complications arise when he and Jeffrey, who turns out to be bisexual, begin an affair under the guise of working on the revisions together–a situation that doesn’t escape Elaine, who, after learning of Robert’s fondness for a certain chat room, has not only logged onto it but has enticed him into a revealing conversation under a mysterious screen name, and eventually–in what’s certainly the script’s most unpleasant twist–convinces him that she’s actually Malcolm talking to him from the grave. It’s all too predictable that this unhealthy complex of relationships will not end happily.
The problems with “The Dying Gaul” are considerable. A purely technical one is that as the narrative plows on, it necessarily depends overmuch on characters tapping away on computer keyboards and shots filled by monitor screens–a circumstance that’s really no more viable cinematically in a drama like this than it is when utilized to such tedious effect in action-adventure flicks. But far more harmful is the use to which those computers are put. Apparently we’re intended to feel some sympathy for all three of these characters, the tormented Robert of course and even Jeffrey, but in particular Elaine, who in the end is not only a failed artist but a woman betrayed. But it’s impossible to empathize with her actions in the first place–the decision to inveigle Robert into internet disclosures seem at best nasty–and when she begins tormenting him by pretending to be the dead Malcolm, she’s turned positively cruel, and the fact that she’s apparently oblivious to the grotesqueness of what she’s doing is appalling. Even an actress as skilled as Clarkson can’t pull off what Lucas demands of her, though in many respects she’s very good. Sarsgaard, meanwhile, does make us feel for Robert, but at times the character’s suffering seems so excessive that even he seems embarrassed by the melodramatics. As for Scott, he endows Jeffrey with a kind of supercilious crispness of manner, but never really convinces as a Hollywood mover-and-shaker. (The fact that the movie doesn’t intend to be “realistic” insofar as the business is concerned doesn’t change that.) And whatever the film intends to say about artistic integrity remains obstinately unclear.
Add to the mix overly artsy cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, whose widescreen images favor oppressive closeups and glossy silhouettes (mostly against a burnt-orange sky) and an intrusive synthesizer score by Steve Reich that accentuates the cold, antiseptic ambience, and you have a film that squanders an enormous amount of talent on a story that, in the last analysis, is little more than a skewed modern retelling of the oldest tale in the book, that of a woman wronged. Unfortunately, in this case Craig Lucas has wronged not just Clarkson but all of his fine cast–and us along with them.