Judge Brendan Babish watched The Dying Gaul. Now he wants to know what happened.
Jeffrey: "Most Americans hate gay people…if they hear it's about gay people, they won't go."
From Tony-winning playwright Craig Lucas (for his play Prelude to a Kiss) comes The Dying Gaul, a noir about sexual ambiguity, artistic integrity, and on-line chatting.
Facts of the Case
Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead) is a struggling screenwriter who's just been offered $1 million for a script about a homosexual love affair. The only catch is that Jeffrey (Campbell Scott, Roger Dodger), the sleazy Hollywood executive who wants to buy the script, insists that Robert change one of the two male protagonists to a woman. After an initial, emphatic refusal, Robert takes about 15 minutes to change his mind, and take the money.
Once his offer is accepted, Jeffrey suddenly treats Robert like an old friend. In the midst of parties and test screenings Robert meets Jeffrey's wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson, Good Night, and Good Luck). Elaine takes an instant liking to the sensitive Robert, and seems particularly interested in his former lover who died of AIDS. After Robert mentions that he now spends countless hours in front of the computer, scouring gay chat rooms. That night she begins stalking him online as he innocently trowels for some anonymous cybersex.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey decides to kick his relationship with Robert up a notch. In the midst of rewriting the script the two begin a torrid, mostly superficial, love affair. Jeffery has no plans to leave his wife, and Robert has no intention of asking him to. But when Robert starts blabbing about his new love affair online, it's only a matter of time before Elaine learns about her husband's sorted affair. And she sure has an unusual way of getting even.
The Dying Gaul is an odd film. The dialogue is smart and articulate. The acting is superb. Yet as a whole the movie makes for a frustrating and wholly confounding experience.
Writer/director Lucas clearly has an ear for great dialogue. The movie opens with an extended scene that is equal parts humor, satire, and tragedy Jeffrey coaxes the young, idealistic Robert to compromise his artistic vision. Jeffrey, as channeled by Campbell Scott, who has to be one of the best actors in Hollywood at playing smooth-talking sociopaths, convinces Robert that America hates gay people, and therefore the script is doomed to—gasp!—lose money. The scene is funny, but cuts a bit too close to reality to draw any guffaws (although Brokeback Mountain seems to have proven Jeffrey to be a bit out of touch).
Still, the first act of the film, which entails Jeffrey's seduction (professionally and personally) of the idealistic Robert, is promising. Then Robert meets Elaine and the film takes an odd, noir-ish turn that is, at times, simply stupefying. Seemingly for kicks, Elaine begins stalking Robert in his favorite chat rooms. She poses as a homosexual and seems intent on luring him into a bout of cybersex. After Robert lets slip that he is sleeping with a married movie executive, Elaine chooses to get even by affecting the identity of Robert's deceased lover. It is at this exact point that The Dying Gaul jumps off the tracks and never seems to get back on course.
The first, and most disconcerting, problem is that Robert previously told Elaine the chat room he most often traverses in. Despite this, Robert flips out and accuses just about everyone he knows of posing as his ex; everyone, that is, except Elaine. While this might seem to be a minor, easily overlooked plot point, the film spends so much time following Robert in his frenzied pursuit of this hoax that it is difficult not to start screaming "It's Elaine you idiot! You told her!"
Regardless, the movie still suffers from the fact that so much of the action entails two characters text messaging each other. Lucas's attempts to inject drama into the scenes by having the actors stare into the camera while wistfully reciting their texts, but this grows stale after only a few minutes. It is slightly sad to say, but, though text messaging seems to be an increasing common form of communication, it has nowhere near the dramatic effect of a good phone call.
I don't want to reveal too much of the film's third act, but it was surprising how the movie's second act somehow devolves into an absolutely incomprehensible conclusion. Every few minutes, I had to pause the film, just to understand what was happening. I kept hoping the final scene would somehow manage to wrap up this unwieldy story in a concise way that would have explained what happened over the previous hour. Suffice it to say, this did not happen.
Sony Pictures has produced a rather uninspired DVD for this movie. The picture is clear and vibrant, and the sound, which is never really tested, is perfectly adequate. The only extras are a handful of deleted scenes. One of these scenes is an "alternate" ending, which is not so much an alternate ending, as an only slight less incomprehensible extension of the proper ending. Strangely, the deleted scenes do not add much to the plot, but do contain racy scenes between Sarsgaard and Scott. One can only imagine the two men's chagrin when, after having filmed these somewhat graphic encounters, they were informed the scenes were being cut.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
By far the biggest asset of The Dying Gaul is its actors. Peter Sarsgaard is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. If he can land the right role, he's going to win himself in Oscar at some point in the next few years. Campbell Scott should have won an Oscar for his brilliant performance in Roger Dodger, a woefully underrated film. I have never seen Patricia Clarkson deliver a sub par performance, and she doesn't disappoint here, despite working with material that fails to utilize all her strengths. Still, it is a rare treat whenever a movie is able to assemble this much talent for its leads.
In the classic comedy Tootsie, Bill Murray plays a pretentious New York playwright named Jeff. At his roommate's birthday party he describes his artistic ambition: "I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried.' I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play…what happened?"
The Dying Gaul is a movie Jeff would have been proud to have written.
Guilty of…well, this film is so inscrutable, I don't even know what. But it's definitely guilty. Now get out of my courtroom.
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