November 12, 2005

MOVIES: The Dying Gaul (Craig Lucas, 2005)

Playwright Craig Lucas makes his directing debut, adapting his own play for the screen. For the three lead roles, he's landed three of our finest actors -- Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott, and Patricia Clarkson -- each of whom is ideally cast. Unfortunately, the story is so absurd and the ending such overwrought melodrama that even those fine actors can't save it.

Sarsgaard is Robert, a screenwriter about to sell his script The Dying Gaul to producer Jeffrey (Scott). The script is loosely based on the recent death of Robert's lover, which makes Robert very reluctant to give in to Jeffrey's major condition: The script must be rewritten to make the central couple heterosexual. ("Most of America," Jeffrey explains, "hates gay people." "What about Philadelphia?" asks Robert. "Philadelphia," says Jeffrey, "is about a man who hates gay people. And it's been done.") But a million dollars is a lot of money, and Robert gives in; he and Jeffrey eventually begin an affair, even as Robert is becoming friends with Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Clarkson).

A promising enough beginning -- and that first long negotiation scene between Robert and Jeffrey is the best thing in the movie -- but it's hard to get past the implausible idea that Robert can't find anyone willing to buy his script as is, especially if it's as good as we're told. The movie's set in 1995, by which time there were certainly companies in the business of producing gay films. (Strand Releasing, for instance -- the company releasing Lucas's The Dying Gaul -- had been around for at least five years, and Robert's The Dying Gaul would have been right up their alley.)

And as the movie winds on, with these three learning one another's secrets and betraying one another in increasingly convoluted and cruel ways, the absurdities become too much to bear (how does Elaine learn everything she would need to know to torment Robert as she does, for instance?). The principals do fine and valiant work, but as good as they are, they can't overcome the increasingly silly story.

On the plus side, the art direction is terrific -- Jeffrey and Elaine's fabulous home in the Hollywood Hills is practically a character in its own right -- and the music by Steve Reich (not an original score, but excerpts from his existing work) is effectively chosen.

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