The Dying Gaul
Review by Willard Manus
THE DYING GAUL should be really be called THE DYING GULL. Written and directed by Craig Lucas, the film is a lame bird that struggles mightily to lift off into the sky, only to flop down in the mud from the effort.
With its misconstrued story, creepy characters and annoying sound track, THE DYING GAUL is pretty much a disaster in every regard, except for the frank, open way it deals with homosexuality. The gay content is in the forefront of the story, neither hidden nor suggested. Such honesty is to be admired; after all, with public opinion as narrow and puritannical as it is these days, it takes some guts for a movie to challenge the status quo in an outfront, defiant way.
THE DYING GAUL was first a play, produced Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Lucas has previously adapted a couple of his plays for the big screen (Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless), but this is the first time he has also directed his own work. The result is less than admirable. THE DYING GAUL has a few effective atmospheric and visual moments--largely thanks to its main setting, a luxurious, sea-front Malibu mansion--but most of it has a choppy, awkward feel and look which no amount of fancy lighting and loud, repetitive music (by Steve Reich) can disguise.
The story is centered around Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard), a struggling screenwriter whose autobiographical script about the death of his boyfriend attracts the attention of a successful producer, Jeffrey (Campbell Scott). Jeffrey, a slick, high-powered Hollywood mogul, loves the story, is moved by its emotionality--but is enough of a crass businessman to want the homosexual stuff excised. The dead lover, Maurice, must now be rewritten as a woman.
Robert resists at first, but when a million bucks is waved under his nose, he swallows his pride and integrity and makes the changes. Not only does his longtime poverty come into it--"I'm still paying off my student loans," he admits ruefully--but Jeffrey's seductiveness. Robert dazzles Robert with his wealth, taste and savvy--and also shakes him up with his bold sexual moves.
Although Jeffrey has a beautiful and intelligent wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), he still makes a play for Robert. Unabashedly bi-sexual, Jeffrey enters into a steamy affair with Robert which we see, on screen, in a series of full-frontal, heavy-breathing scenes that are embarassingly graphic and over the top.
In one of them, Robert, being brought to orgasm by his lover, begins to whinny and wheeze like a consumptive race horse. Meant to reveal character, I suppose (his intense enjoyment of sex?), it comes off as ludicrous instead-- an unintentionally comic moment that will be enshrined in the annals of inept moviemaking.
Equally embarrassing are the many internet scenes in THE DYING GAUL. Lucas makes the mistake of portraying Robert as a gay chatroom freak, one who not only holds pornographic conversations with complete strangers, but drops his pants and whacks off while typing. This too is one for the books: a case history in how not to write a sympathetic, believable character.
Ironically, it's not even a man at the other end of the cyber connection. It's Elaine. Having inadvertently learned of Jeffrey's secret chatroom life, she enters into it as a psuedonymous male, leading him on something awful. Her wickedness turns bleakly vengeful when she begins to twig, from his remarks, that he is having an affair with her husband.
Lucas' story becomes nastier by the moment, until all its meager humanity is ultimately squeezed out, leaving us with nothing to contemplate but a pulpy lump of sickness, stupidity and death.