We all know that Hollywood is a moral cesspool, combining the best/worst parts of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it never hurts to be reminded again. Hence, The Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas' meticulous dissection of a studio executive (Campbell Scott), his beautifully bored wife (Patricia Clarkson) and the gay screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) who comes between them. The Dying Gaul is both the title of the movie we're watching and the title of the script that Sarsgaard's Robert has written, which he based on his agent/lover, Malcolm, who recently died of AIDS. Campbell's Jeffrey wants to buy the script. He also wants to change a few of the details. For instance, he wants to change Malcolm to Maggie, from a gay man to a straight woman. Will Robert do it? The price is right: a cool million. And Jeffrey can be as persuasive as Lucifer.
That's where most anti-Hollywood movies would end, but The Dying Gaul has just gotten started. Jeffrey makes a pass at Robert; it turns out he's bisexual. And he takes Robert home to meet his wife, Elaine, who's a screenwriter herself and recognizes a kindred spirit. Robert likes Elaine. Elaine likes Robert. Robert likes Jeffrey. Jeffrey likes Robert. Everybody likes everybody. But there's tragedy in the air, a volatile mix of jealousy and disappointment, grief and lust, love and money. And it doesn't help matters when Jeffrey and Robert start an affair behind Elaine's back. "You can do anything you want as long as you don't call it what it is," Jeffrey tells Robert. A Philistine and a libertine, Jeffrey is used to getting what he wants, and what he wants, it appears, is Robert's soul. Or maybe he just wants Robert's body. It's hard to tell.
Set in 1995, in the early days of America Online, The Dying Gaul moves freely between the material realm and the spiritual realm, body and soul. And the spiritual realm is only a mouse-click away. Alone at night, Robert cruises Internet chat rooms, where, he says, "there is no corporeal body, just all these voices." And pretty soon, Elaine shows up there too, looking for love and revenge in all the wrong places. Sex with a computer is so mid-'90s (not that there's any less of it going on today), but Lucas does some nice things with these now-familiar cybernetic motifs, bringing out their ethereal qualities. When Robert, having agreed to abandon his lover's memory to Jeffrey's idea of what will sell, sits down to change his script, he selects the "Find and Replace" command, which elicits the following message: "ScreenWriter has replaced 1172 instances of 'Malcolm.'" So has screenwriter.
Like the ocean-view house where most of it takes place, The Dying Gaul is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, a padded cell in which the characters bounce off both the walls and each other. It feels a little like a David Mamet play, though not as venal as, say, Speed-the-Plow. Jeffrey, Robert and Elaine genuinely care for one another, but they're rapacious, too needy. And the actors have no trouble playing both sides of that equation. Clarkson's Elaine seems mildly dazed, somewhere between nirvana and oblivion. Robert, too, seems stuck between this life and the next, so stricken with grief that he might as well have died himself. And Jeffrey? Jeffrey is a studio executive, with all that implies. "No one goes to the movies to have a bad time or to learn anything," he tells Robert, chipping away at whatever conscience Robert might have brought with him that day. Obviously, he hasn't seen The Dying Gaul.