Poor Hollywood. Once a symbol of glamour and possibility, these days it's now used in films as little more than a metaphorical cesspool full of symbolic human turds—and with The Dying Gaul, writer/director Craig Lucas plops in a few more.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert, a young gay screenwriter with a chance to sell his autobiographical script to hotshot producer Jeffrey (Campbell Scott). The catch: Jeffrey will only buy the script if Robert changes his protagonist from a gay man to a straight woman. Because the character is based on Robert's deceased ex-lover, the change signifies more than just a simple rewrite; still, Robert agrees. In making this extraordinarily obvious deal with the devil, Robert ensures his own downfall: Jeffrey soon seduces the vulnerable Robert, beginning an illicit affair that grows dangerous when Robert is introduced to Jeffrey's wife, the lonely Elaine (Patricia Clarkson). Anyway, Elaine finds out about Robert's affair with her husband, and it's at this point that the script veers from tedious and predictable to damn near unwatchable. After learning of Jeffrey's infidelity, Elaine develops an obsession with Robert, contacting him online and pretending to be the ghost of his dead lover. Robert comes increasingly unraveled, and the script train wrecks into a tragedy of Grecian proportions.
Tedious plot points aside, the real tragedy is what first-time director Lucas does to his cast. The performances are flawless: As Jeffrey, Campbell Scott is manipulative and slimy, but not entirely lacking in vulnerability; Patricia Clarkson gives a razor-sharp turn; and Peter Sarsgaard is poignant and believable. Unfortunately, these performances are overshadowed by Lucas' ponderous direction—the film is full of meaningless, gratuitous shots of sky and water, and the gothic-sounding score—no doubt intended to evoke high tragedy—instead just seems overblown. Ultimately, it's hard to accept that a petty, sordid Hollywood love triangle is worthy of such heavy-handed treatment.