3 stars (out of four)
Faust sold his soul to the devil for knowledge, a fun trade while it lasted. Demi Moore sold herself body and sneer to Robert Redford for a million in "Indecent Proposal." God knows what certain presidents traded in exchange for two terms in office. Everyone has a price.
Craig Lucas, one of the American theater's few reliable craftsmen and even fewer wits, makes his film directorial debut--a good one--with a Faustian tale of his own called "The Dying Gaul." The play of the same name, a spiky rumination on compromises and soul-selling in Hollywood, stirred up some controversy in its 1998 premiere. Lucas, best known on screen for "Longtime Companion" and his recent, excellent script for "The Secret Lives of Dentists," has since reworked the material, de-emphasizing one character (a therapist), toning down some of the cattier tell-all zingers (a Tom Cruise joke, I believe, is gone). The onscreen results wobble a bit in the climactic, murderous narrative turns. Yet en route it works on its own terms, and in what is essentially a three-person picture, Lucas has cast the leads with the right three people.
Peter Sarsgaard, a long way from the forthcoming "Jarhead," plays Robert, a broke, gay West Hollywood screenwriter grieving the recent death of his lover. Robert's AIDS-themed script, named "The Dying Gaul" after the ancient Roman statue, attracts the interest of studio executive Jeffrey, played by Campbell Scott. They take a meeting. Jeffrey flatters Robert, then drops the big one: He'll do the movie if Robert changes the gay lovers at the heart of Robert's script into a straight couple.
"Let's face it," says Jeffrey, a charming bully and a bullying bisexual charmer, "heterosexuals are also getting AIDS, in disastrous numbers." Then, in nearly the same breath: "You wanna meet Tim Burton?"
At this point Lucas' protagonist has two choices. Either he leaves the meeting with principles intact and wallet empty, or he takes the $1 million, does the rewrites and shut up. He takes the $1 million. Soon afterward producer Jeffrey slides into an affair with Robert. Jeffrey and his ex-screenwriter wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), who have two children, invite Robert out to their Malibu house for work and socializing. Elaine does not realize what is going on with her husband and her new good friend.
"The Dying Gaul" is set in 1995. To the extent that it's a period piece, its chief historical marker is the newfound phenomenon of Internet chat rooms frequented by Robert. Elaine becomes intrigued by the notion of anonymous connection. Pretending to be a gay male using the name "Arckangell," she seeks out Robert online; they chat; the chat becomes personal. Then Robert reveals to her the details of his affair with Jeffrey.
From there "The Dying Gaul" takes a series of narrative leaps. The biggest involves the anguished Elaine--working with a complicated set of mixed emotions--convincing Robert that she is the online cyber-ghost of Robert's dead lover. Lucas asks a lot with the notion that Robert, even in a grief-stricken, strung-out state, is credulous enough to believe his dead ex lurks in chat-%rooms. Some will buy this and some will not.
More urgent and screw-tightening direction might've helped the final, escalating passages, which play out like a noir melodrama in broad L.A. daylight. But overall, Lucas knows his milieu and the emotional terrain well. He has an eye too. The way he and editor Andy Keir introduce the main characters, each moving forward--two driving, one swimming--in the same inexorable direction, it's clear Lucas is a man of the stage with promising instincts for the cinema.
Sarsgaard is touching and fully engaged, after his sleepy turn in "Flightplan." Scott is wonderfully duplicitous playing a man of power, influence and a carefree lack of scruples. He's one of our most reliably solid screen actors--he is, in fact, my vote for "the new Gene Hackman." In the tricky role of Elaine, Clarkson makes every flicker of sympathy, doubt and steely resolve register. "The Dying Gaul" stays interesting even when it asks more and more--too much, probably--of the audience's disbelief suspension. People do crazy things when afflicted by loss and rage, after all. In Lucas' world a million just isn't enough for what you give up in return.
'The Dying Gaul'
Directed and written by Craig Lucas, based on Lucas' play; cinematography by Bobby Bukowski; production design by Vincent Jefferds; music by Steve Reich; edited by Andy Keir; produced by Campbell Scott and George Van Buskirk. A Strand Releasing and Holedigger Studios release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content and language).
Elaine - Patricia Clarkson
Robert - Peter Sarsgaard
Jeffrey - Campbell ScottCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times