The early hook of "The Dying Gaul" lands you hard. A fast-talking movie producer (Campbell Scott) tries to convince an aspiring writer (Peter Sarsgaard) to gut his screenplay he loves it, but it's about homosexuals. Americans hate gays, he explains; no one will see it. The writer vacillates, and the implications are intriguing, even if a bit dulled by the recent breakthroughs of movies like "Brokeback Mountain." How many "Sleepless in Seattles" started off as "Sleepless in San Francisco"?
So does Sarsgaard's scribbler take the million he's offered to sell out? He does, but, dumbfoundingly, that moment of personal crisis is just a setup. "The Dying Gaul," after an intelligent, withering attack on the conventional thinking of the movie industry, reveals itself to be a very conventional story. If another movie wanted to comment on lurid melodrama like "The Dying Gaul," it would have the producer laud the homosexuality but suggest the addition of a thriller subplot. This is a movie which begins with the quote from Melville, "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall," then offers an alternate ending in the bonus features not the most convincing mark of independent thinking.
"The Dying Gaul" never answers those questions, but merely uses them to get yet one more film in bed with the psychological thriller industry. If another movie wanted to comment on lurid melodrama like "The Dying Gaul," it would have the producer ignore the homosexuality and suggest the addition of a thriller subplot. This is a movie that begins with the quote from Melville, "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall," then offers an alternate ending in the bonus features not the most convincing mark of independent thinking.
It's a shame because "The Dying Gaul" is filled with the good work of talented artists. Scott and Sarsgaard give performances marking them as top actors in the movies, along with a convincing turn by Patricia Clarkson as a morally ambiguous industry wife. Writer-director Craig Lucas' film is economic, with a few well-placed bold cuts and scenes. His initial premise of an industry gone awry has a solid history in the contemporary era, from Robert Altman's "The Player" to Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation." "The Dying Gaul" is both straight-laced and unsubtle, serviceable and entertaining, but without the self-awareness it certainly seemed capable of. It pleases just fine. Look elsewhere if you want to be appalled. S
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