The characters in Craig Lucas’ “The Dying Gaul” are driven by the creative process to extremes that are too much for this emotionally frigid drama to handle. In his third film collaboration with co-star and producer Campbell Scott, his third stage-to-screen adaptation and his directing debut, Lucas explores considerably more nefarious material than in his previous “The Secret Lives of Dentists.” Despite a reliable cast led by Scott, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard, the human impact is ultimately lost in a too calculated scenario. Theatrical prospects are slim despite the prestigious thesp roster, resting on critical support that may not materialize this time for Lucas.
When a playwright moves into helming, often there are problems with the direction. But “Gaul’s” problems can be firmly affixed to the text and not to Lucas’ helming, which is efficient and often visually interesting.
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In 1995 Hollywood, bigtime studio development exec Jeffrey (Scott) wants to buy a script titled “The Dying Gaul” written by Robert (Sarsgaard). The setting, however, is barely credible although occasionally alluring. Pic is staged in a vacuum in which Jeffrey and Robert are practically the only folks on the lot (Paramount’s, though studio is never named).
This artificiality dogs the film from start to finish, but the first act promises intriguing possibilities. Clarkson as Jeffrey’s floundering wife, Elaine, wanders around their luxurious Malibu home. At the same time, Jeffrey and Robert meet about the script. Jeffrey tells Robert the script as it is (centering on a gay couple) is unfilmable, but it could be greenlit with a gender change. Having just lost his lover and agent Malcolm (Bill Camp) to AIDS and deep in debt, Robert accepts the $1 million deal.
Pic’s first of many character interactions with a home computer is the most effective, as the tense Robert switches character name “Maurice” to “Maggie” and then futilely tries to undo the change.
Robert is welcomed into Jeffrey and Elaine’s home and lives, setting off a queasy emotional geometry in which Jeffrey makes a move on Robert and Elaine grows platonically close to him. Learning about Robert’s fascination with Internet chatrooms, Elaine ventures into one of his rooms anonymously, triggering a vastly more involved virtual dialogue exchange than the sort Patrick Marber played with in “Closer.”
When Elaine actually assumes the guise of Malcolm in one of the chatrooms, whatever good intentions she may have had warp into something terribly ugly and too much for the film to bear.
Lucas’ dramatic triangle grows swollen, unbalanced and emotionally unreal,a calculus that appears far more interesting on paper than played out onscreen. This hyper-precision underscored by the extensive use of many of Steve Reich’s best-known compositions on the soundtrack, which are so strong that they tend to both stand aurally apart from the screen action and inject a cool mood in a movie that needs more heat.
Perfs by Clarkson, Scott and Sarsgaard are courageous, even astounding work by world-class actors faced with near-impossible demands. Clarkson, often playing alone and to a computer screen (with accompanying voiceover), is especially impressive drawing a portrait of a sad, lonely woman who hasn’t found the right outlet for her imagination.
An actor on a roll, Sarsgaard continues to suggest he’s capable of doing anything, including weeping and then laughing after sex with Scott.
Hollywood types will scoff at pic’s grasp of how the biz really operates, but that would be missing Lucas’ intention to use studio culture symbolically rather than as a fully fleshed-out backdrop a la “The Player.”
Production elements are as clean and crisp as a newly pressed suit, with Lucas showing himself assured with the camera.