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November 18, 2005

A good film that could have been great

The Dying Gaul takes us right up to the edge, but then stops

The Dying Gaul, out gay writer Craig Lucas’s film directorial debut, has powerful performances by its three leading stars but is unevenly written and directed, with mixed results.

Lucas has had a successful career as playwright and screenwriter. His most well-received films include Prelude to a Kiss, The Secret Lives of Dentists and 1990’s seminal Longtime Companion, which was the first successful crossover film, from art house to mainstream, dealing with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in America.

In many ways The Dying Gaul is a unique film which falls short of the promise of its story and the astute work of its actors. The trailer to the film, which was widely played in theaters for the past six months, promised a gritty, suspenseful, sexy film with great potential. Unfortunately, the preview was more satisfying than the actual film.

The story involves a love triangle that is unique as far as Hollywood films go. Jeffrey is a studio executive in the seedy city of Los Angeles where seduction is the lingua franca of the celluloid peddlers. Robert is a gay screenwriter who has just lost his longtime companion to a horrible disease.

Jeffrey wants to buy Robert’s latest screenplay, called The Dying Gaul, with one caveat--that Robert change the central same-sex couple to a heterosexual one.

Jeffrey, who is successful and seems happily married to Elaine, begins an affair with Robert. What ensues is terrifying and torrid, with end results that are almost Greek in their tragic proportions.

The film, like Robert Altman’s brilliant The Player, takes on the Hollywood studio system, its hypocrisy, it homophobia and its hysterical shenanigans in taking a film from the page to the screen. Yet Lucas’s screenplay is frustrating because it takes us to a certain edge but never allows a full emotional release. In telling an anti-Hollywood story, Lucas seems to be trying too hard to be anti-mainstream and ends up with a script and story that never realize their full promise.

The ending, which should have had the audience weeping with grief, instead leaves it somewhat confused and distanced, never fully allowing viewers to identify with the awfulness of the characters’ situations.

The film is saved entirely by the trio of actors, who in a better film would be part of Oscar buzz.

Campbell Scott (who played a young, naïve gay man terrified of AIDS in Longtime Companion) is the ruthless, sleazy and flawed Jeffrey.

Scott captures the inhumanity of his character with surprising humanity, creating a smarmy guy who is somewhat sympathetic. Aging here, with graying temples and more textured features, Scott imbues a sexual energy that is palpable, especially in his seduction of Robert.

The always amazing Patricia Clarkson, as Elaine, creates a complex woman living in a complex world and marriage with ease and subtlety. Clarkson knows just what to reveal and what to leave hidden. It is also nice to see an older actress, by Hollywood standards, portray a woman fully in touch with her sexuality and sexiness.

As Robert, Peter Sarsgaard is simply astounding.

Saarsgard, who may indeed be the most versatile star of his generation, turns in one surprising performance after another. He is no stranger to queer roles. He beautifully portrayed the protégé and lover of sexual sociologist Alfred Kinsey in last year’s Kinsey, directed by the out Bill Condon.

Contrastingly, he played the homophobic basher John Lotter in the Oscar Award-winning film Boys Don’t Cry. He can currently be seen in a very different role in Sam Mendez’s breathtaking war film Jarhead, as a soldier trying to find himself through the lens of the first Gulf War.

Sarsgaard is an actor of great versatility and depth.

In The Dying Gaul he turns in his most accomplished and nuanced role. Sarsgaard can be touchingly vulnerable and devastatingly manipulative within seconds and each moment always rings true. He is also not afraid to embrace the sexual and here he turns in work that is raw and exposed. The scene where sex with Jeffrey causes Robert to break down allows Sarsgaard to create a cinematic moment that may be unrivaled in its bravery and honesty.

Together the three actors create sparks and synergy that makes up for the flaws in Lucas’ directorial debut. There are many parts of the film that are strongly directed, but the lax ones create an uneven film. There is a lot of style in Lucas’ approach, but sometimes he seems to be going for style over substance, subverting the true power of the story he is trying to tell.

The film is definitely worth watching, especially for the acting trio on display here. One only wishes that the film had lived up to its entire potential.

Early on, Jeffrey says to Robert, “No one goes to the movies to have a bad time.” The Dying Gaul is not a bad time. But it could have been a really good time with some story rewrites and stronger, more cohesive directing.




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