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Strong performances can't overcome 'Gaul's' faults

| Friday, Dec. 2, 2005

A strong first act and a middling middle yield to disastrously improbable developments in "The Dying Gaul" that realistically introduced material cannot support.

Craig Lucas, who wrote "Prelude to a Kiss" and "Longtime Companion, based "The Dying Gaul" on his 1998 off-Broadway play. He here makes his debut as a film director, drawing two good performances from his leading men and a particularly strong one from Patricia Clarkson.

But the dramaturgy of the third act cannot and will not wash.

Struggling bisexual writer Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard), who has an ex-wife and a child about age 6 to support, has named the screenplay he's shopping "The Dying Gaul" for a Roman statue of a wounded soldier.

The play is about his love affair with his agent, Malcolm (Bill Camp in flashbacks), who is called Maurice in the screenplay and who died of AIDS. It sounds a lot like "Longtime Companion."

Studio executive Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) offers Robert $1 million for the rights on the condition that Robert compromise the integrity of the work by changing the illness from AIDS to cancer and by changing the deceased from a man to a woman.

Though it isn't noted in "The Dying Gaul" -- and why not• -- sexual encoding was done routinely before 1970, and, because it once was necessary, by many gay writers such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Cornell Woolrich, also known as William Irish.

Robert makes the case that the AIDS-themed movie "Philadelphia" sold well in 1993-94 ("Dying Gaul's" "present" is 1995), but Jeffrey dismisses it as an aberration because "Most Americans hate gay people."

With one stroke of Robert's computer keyboard, 1,172 references to Maurice become Maggie.

The seductive, superior, oily, secretly bisexual Jeffrey invites Robert into his bed and into his Malibu home to become part of a family that includes wife and former screenwriter Elaine (Patricia Clarkson) and their two children. Jeffrey is Hollywood.

So far so good.

It's plausible that Elaine would embrace Robert as a lost soul in a barracuda pool and to join Jeffrey in welcoming the neophyte into their world.

It's probable that she'd find out what's going on between the men. We're waist-high in melodrama anyway.

The film takes a suspect left turn, though, when Elaine asks Robert the identity of his "favorite dirty chat room."

Each step she takes upon joining him anonymously in the chat room under two aliases is more unlikely than the one before until "The Dying Gaul" spirals so far off track it cannot recover.

And it leads to yet another dumb development of an afterlife theme in which a presumably smart, articulate person fails to ask a single intelligent question about life after death. Patience expires instantly.

"Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall," warns "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville in the opening frames of "The Dying Gaul," a screenplay so bent on satisfying itself in some respects that it defies gratification in others.

Still, it is not to be denied moments that register with authenticity like the one in which Robert opts for the moolah over the imagined integrity and the one in which Elaine assimilates information she hadn't expected to find.

  • At the Oaks, Oakmont.

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    'The Dying Gaul'

    Rated R for strong sexual content and language; two and one-half stars.

    Two and one-half stars

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