Suffer well

By |2005-11-17T09:00:00-05:00November 17th, 2005|Entertainment|

It’s 1995. You’re a struggling screenwriter. A big Hollywood studio is interested in your script, which is based on your lover’s painful, and recent, death from AIDS. They offer you a million dollars. The catch: they want you to change the main characters from two men to a man and a woman.
This is the bind in which Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) finds himself in “The Dying Gaul,” a film written and directed by Craig Lucas (“Longtime Companion”). Oh, and the script Robert is trying to sell, named after a famous Greek statue of a wounded warrior, has the same name as the actual film.
“No one is going to see ‘The Dying Gaul,'” says Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), the Hollywood exec making the offer. Even if it had Tom Cruise in it, Jeffrey says, even if Steven Spielberg directed it and it opened on 400,000 screens across the country. “Americans hate gay people. They hear it’s about gay people, they won’t go.”
An interesting and ironic assertion in a film about gay people. It’s also a debate raging in the film critic world as the opening of “Brokeback Mountain” draws closer. Will Americans go see a film about two gay cowboys played by two of Hollywood’s hottest actors and directed by one of Hollywood’s most revered directors?
It could happen. But would Americans have gone to see such a film in 1995? Less likely.
When Jeffrey suggests they make the character of “Maurice” a woman with AIDS, Robert storms out of the office. “I want nothing to do with that,” he says.
But Robert needs the money. And Jeffrey is a smooth talker – in more ways than one. Robert’s script isn’t the only thing Jeffrey has his eye on.
Just compromise your principles this one time, Jeffrey assures Robert, and you’ll be making the movies you want, the way you want, in no time. Look at Spike Lee, Jeffrey offers, he writes movies “about his own people and they make money.”
Jeffrey, who is married and has two children, then suggests a hug. As the men embrace it becomes clear that the relationship Jeffrey has in mind is more than business casual.
“You can do anything you want as long as you don’t call it what it is,” says Jeffrey. “Understand?”
Soon Robert is spending much of his time with Jeffery and his wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), who introduce him to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Elaine finds Robert fascinating and asks him all sorts of intrusive questions. She is especially interested in Robert’s obsession with what she calls “really dirty” chat rooms, where he admits he’s been spending a lot of his time since his lover’s death.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, but could be just the ennui of a rich and bored housewife, Elaine logs on under a fake name and spies on Robert. It begins innocently enough, but when she finds out during a chat about her husband’s affair with Robert, Elaine, still anonymous, turns sadistic. While her husband messes around with Robert’s body, Elaine messes with his mind.
It’s clear from the beginning that things are not going to turn out happily ever after. And they don’t. When Elaine confronts Jeffrey about the affair he seeks out Robert, convinced he’s been betrayed.
He needs his marriage, Jeffrey tells Robert. “I’m sorry if I don’t live up to your standards,” Jeffrey says. “The trouble is I’m bisexual. I like both.”
But liking both and having both are entirely different propositions.
“Suffering is a disease from which everyone may be truly cured,” Elaine tells Robert before things sour. Unfortunately, the wrong cure can be worse than the disease.
“No one goes to the movies to have a bad time,” Jeffrey says to Robert at their first meeting.
Indeed. However, “The Dying Gaul” isn’t exactly a good time. It’s a downer, but a well-paced one despite some awkward techniques (if there is a compelling filmic way to depict people chatting online Lucas does not find one) and a few leaps of logic (why the characters do what they do isn’t always clear, but then that’s the way it is in real life, too).
Still, even with strong performances by Campbell, Sarsgaard and Clarkson it’s unlikely “The Dying Gaul” is going to play well in the red states and will probably remain a niche film in blue ones.

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