Deception, betrayal, and revenge. In his film directorial debut, acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, and theater director Craig Lucas is done in by his own script, which becomes so excessively icy and cruel that it breaks, rather than solidifies, any bond it could hope to establish with its audience. A modern-day Greek tragedy — complete with an unwitting Medea — The Dying Gaul becomes so overwrought in the last act that it ends up as pure histrionics.
At the film’s center are three likable, fundamentally decent people who ultimately commit unpardonable acts. Jeffrey (played by Campbell Scott) is an intelligent, thoughtful Hollywood studio executive, not the stereotypical smarmy type you’d expect. A member of Hollywood’s elite, he lives a contented and comfortable life with his wife Elaine (the always brilliant Patricia Clarkson) and their two children. Since giving up her screenwriting career for the life of a Malibu housewife, the free-spirited and extraordinarily likable Elaine really hasn’t found an outlet for her energies and considerable talents. A devoted wife and mother, she nonetheless flits about in search of a purpose or, at the very least, a distraction.
Into their lives comes Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), a sweet, melancholy screenwriter who is mourning the recent death of his lover and agent, Malcolm. Robert has written a script called The Dying Gaul, which Jeffrey wants to buy. It concerns a gay couple dealing with AIDS and death. The problem: Economics of Hollywood being what they are, Jeffrey wants to change the male lover to a female. Robert is not willing to sell out his principles.
As part of his campaign to woo Robert, Jeffrey all but adopts him. So he, Elaine, and Robert seem to spend all of their time together; Elaine and Robert, in fact, hit it off immediately and become almost intellectual lovers. What Elaine doesn’t realize is that Robert and her husband are also becoming intimately involved, albeit on a very different level.
Robert opens up to Elaine, confessing behavior and actions he has never previously disclosed to anyone. But she wants to know more. When he remarks that he spends a lot of time in gay Internet chat rooms, Elaine decides to go online; there, posing as a gay man, she engages him anonymously in conversation. His revelation about his relationship with Jeffrey sends shockwaves through Elaine and sets off a tragic chain of events that is worthy of the gods on Mount Olympus.
The Dying Gaul (the title was inspired by a famous Roman statue that depicts a wounded warrior on the ground awaiting death) marks the third stage-to-screen adaptation for Lucas. He first came to attention with his play Prelude to a Kiss, which he adapted for the screen in 1992, and his extensive theatrical credits include writing the book for the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza. As a director, Lucas’ transition from stage to screen is impressive. His visual sense is strong — especially his use of space and architecture — and he has an unerring feel for how framing, composition, and lighting can be used both to suggest and reveal psychological undercurrents. His smartest move, however, was in hiring three of the most gifted actors working today as his three leads. Clarkson, Sarsgaard, and Scott (who also starred in the film version of The Secret Lives of Dentists, written by Lucas) are all at the top of their game here, not afraid to play the most venomous aspects of human nature.
But what transpires is so over-the-top, so malevolent, so venal that it strains credulity. While the kinds of betrayal each character engages in from this point on could understandably bring out the worst in people, there is an hysterical quality to the story itself. Rather than feeling the film’s inexorable march toward tragedy, you’re more likely to feel nothing at all. The fault lies not with the actors, but with Lucas’ screenplay. In the end, you can’t help but wonder what The Dying Gaul is trying to say and, more important, how it justifies whatever it’s saying. Not good questions to be asking at a film’s conclusion.