Would you sell your soul for a million dollars? Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) is an aspiring screenwriter who writes a tragic, heart-yanking script titled The Dying Gaul, about the painful and honest account of his gay lover’s death. When he meets hot-shot studio executive Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), he’s offered a million dollars for his script. Robert thinks he has landed the deal of a lifetime. But as always, there is a catch—he’ll have to make the story more audience-friendly and wash away the gay. He must suck the heart and soul right out of it and make the kind of movie that Martha Stewart would want to watch.
The story of a writer struggling between artistic integrity and a hearty paycheck is riddled with potential. As instructed, Robert sits at his computer fighting to change the lead gay character into a heterosexual female, and it eats him up inside with every tap of the keyboard. We can feel him experiencing the harsh aftermath of his choices, buried beneath the lure of cash, and it seems obvious that the movie is really headed somewhere fantastic.
And then something truly awful happens—The Dying Gaul completely shifts gears and morphs into something vile. The writer’s internal struggle goes 'poof', and instead we bear witness to these characters behaving as if their souls have been dispossessed. Jeffrey starts sleeping with Robert, without any regard for his wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson). It’s hard to tell which of the two lovers is more self-absorbed and malicious, as they get entangled in a bitter web of lies.
While we initially feel sorry for Elaine, she loses our sympathy by visiting gay chat rooms to mess with Robert’s head under fake aliases. What starts off as playfully sleazy quickly warps into one of the cruelest paybacks ever constructed. The way things unfold is not only uncomfortable, but it reeks of pretension and exuberant stupidity. Besides, there’s nothing entertaining about watching people type back and forth.
With a brilliantly talented cast, how could the movie go so wrong? The fault lies with writer/director Craig Lucas (Prelude To A Kiss), who never decides if he’s making a classic tragedy or a modern day satire. I never figured out exactly what this movie is about, or what kind of statement it’s trying to make. Watching three people who behave like sociopaths take turns seeing who can be the most immoral is an unlikely way to win over an audience. It’s ironic that Robert’s script within the movie is adjusted to appeal to more people, but the film itself doesn’t bother to take its own advice.
These actors deserve a lot better. They wander through the movie like they’re stuck in a bad junior high school theatrical production, and in a way they are. There is a great movie lurking somewhere in The Dying Gaul, but it rolled over and played dead within the first ten minutes. Another one bites the dust.