‘The Dying Gaul’: L.A. Story, By Kurt Loder

Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott bring a problematic play to memorable life onscreen.

Robert (Peter Saarsgard) is a scuffling L.A. screenwriter who’s been writing one spec script after another and getting nowhere. His latest story is also his most personal, and least commercial: It’s about the death of his gay lover. But a sleek and sympathetic studio executive named Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) takes an interest. Jeffrey wants to buy the script, which is called “The Dying Gaul,” but there’s just one thing — the gay lover has to be changed to a woman. “Most Americans,” he says, “hate gay people.” Jeffrey feels he’s just being commercially realistic, but Robert storms out of his office. The persistent exec heads him off at the parking lot, though, and offers him one-million dollars for the script. Robert is repulsed by the idea of becoming a Hollywood cliché — the sell-out screenwriter — but he desperately needs the money; among other things, he has an ex-wife and a small son back east, from another lifetime, to whom he hasn’t been able to provide any financial support.

Jeffrey isn’t a caricature Tinseltown sleaze, but he does know the uses of manipulation. He takes Robert to his huge, airy Malibu home to meet his wife, Elaine, and their two children, and to bask in the sort of behold-the-Pacific luxury that can be his, too, if he wants it. Elaine was also a screenwriter, before her marriage; she loves Robert’s script and doesn’t want him to change it. (“Don’t become one of them,” she implores him.) Then an odd thing happens. Jeffrey is standing with Robert outside the house, and suddenly says to him, “Give me a hug.” They embrace, and Jeffrey continues: “You are very handsome. And I’m getting a little turned on.”

Robert reluctantly enters into a sexual relationship with Jeffrey. But Elaine is attracted to him, too, on an intellectual level, and when he tells her that he’s been compelled by loneliness to spend most of his nights in online gay chat rooms, she manages to anonymously meet him in one of them. There, posing as a gay man herself, she asks him if he’s found another lover yet. Jeffrey says yes, sort of — a man he’s working for. But he has a wife and two children.

“The Dying Gaul,” a film by New York playwright and first-time director Craig Lucas, has the tight, nailed-down structure of a good play, complete with ambient bursts of pungent, if not always symmetrically germane, observation. (“Thieves and hackers, unlike other creatures, feel no need to leave their names all over their work.”) The story’s flaws might pass unobjectionably amid the magical realism of a theatrical performance, but seen from a greater remove in a film, they stick out. The attempted introduction of a supernatural element is unpersuasive; and the second of two successive uses to which a species of sinister vegetation is put seems illogical.

But the movie is beautifully filmed, by Bobby Bukowski, in blazing ocean blues and a distinctive soft light that summons up warm California nights. (One shot, in which a fiery orange sunset streams through a window and is reflected on a polished desk — echoing an earlier view of a long, gleaming infinity swimming pool — is strikingly gorgeous.) Bukowski and the editor, Andy Keir, also pull off the difficult feat of making protracted scenes of Robert and Elaine e-mailing each other, with their dialogue all done in voice-over, visually as well as dramatically compelling.

But it’s the actors who really lift the movie above the shortcomings of its plot, and bring it richly alive. No one conveys an air of dangerous recklessness more alarmingly than Campbell Scott (who did it unforgettably in “Roger Dodger,” and does it in a more muted way here). With his slightly off-kilter good looks, he would seem to have all the qualifications to be a major movie star except any real interest in being one. (He’s also a director himself.) And Patricia Clarkson, of “Far From Heaven” and “All the Real Girls,” builds yet another unique character out of an accretion of emotional details and physical carriage. We can feel that Elaine is torn between her talent as a writer and the luxurious cocoon of her Malibu family life, but we never see her agonizing over it — she’s made a trade-off, but it’s not an entirely bad one. And her final confrontation with Jeffrey over his liaison with Robert, which might have been an outsized emotional wallow in any other movie, is accomplished here with masterful restraint, as a mixture of anger and betrayal and simple, confounding disorientation.

But the centerpiece performance in the film — and reason enough to see it — is by the now-ubiquitous (and happily so) Peter Sarsgaard. He plays Robert as a recognizable artistic type — a sensitive, talented gay man with little in the way of emotional defenses — without resorting to any sort of stereotype. It’s an uncanny portrayal, and it’s unlike any of the other characters he’s inhabited in movies like “Garden State” or, more to the point, “Kinsey.” His career has been unusually enjoyable to follow because we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next — and suspect that we won’t see anything like it anywhere else until he does it.

— Kurt Loder

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