The playwright Craig Lucas has been very good before. His Longtime Companion is still the cinema's best AIDS movie, and The Secret Lives of Dentists is a trenchant relationship drama. But The Dying Gaul, which he wrote for the stage, and now has adapted for the screen in his directorial debut, is more akin to his irritating Prelude to a Kiss: more pose than prose, and finally more murky than illuminating.
Set in posh Hollywood, The Dying Gaul revolves around Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), an unsuccessful gay screenwriter whose lover, Malcolm, recently died. Robert pitches his autobiographical script to Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a producer, who offers him $1 million -- if Robert will turn the story's dying lover into a woman. Desperate for money, Robert agrees, and soon he becomes fast friends with Jeffrey and his wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a failed screenwriter now raising their two children.
Jeffrey's ensuing seduction of Robert begins immediately and isn't subtle: He asks Robert for a congratulatory hug, tells him that he's getting turned on, and soon Robert is reaming Jeffrey on the conference table in his office. But Elaine is also smitten with Robert. Armed with intimate knowledge from Robert's diaries -- and very soon aware of the affair -- she enters Robert's online chat room and poses as Malcolm's spirit, speaking to Robert from beyond, which messes with his head just fine.
The Dying Gaul is an icy, brutal rout of Hollywood duplicity -- "you can do anything you want in a movie," Jeffrey says, "as long as you don't call it what it is" -- a worst-case scenario imagined by an East Coast playwright who's maintained his integrity out there (although he still seems to be bitter about the ending of the film version of Prelude). It also ponders why relationships succeed (or don't), and why we can't just all tell the truth.
But Lucas has written more of an abstract noir film than a character drama, and the longer it goes on, the more unsatisfying it becomes. He doesn't seem to like his trio very much, and he leaves a lot to our intuition. When Jeffrey finally howls that he's bisexual, we should catch on that he's a manipulative, self-hating closet case. But will we?
The ending of The Dying Gaul is abrupt and open, but in a cheap way. It's perfectly clear what happens. It's just not clear what happens next, and you'll only care if these exceptional actors have seduced you into caring: Clarkson, at first pathetically naïve, then incredibly cold-blooded; Scott, in full arrogant-bastard mode; and Sarsgaard, touchingly plaintive and docile until his yang kicks in. When The Dying Gaul still seems like it might be going somewhere fruitful, Elaine tells Robert what a wonderful person he is, and he replies, "You wouldn't say that if you really knew me." Q.E.D.