Craig Lucas sure is mad at Hollywood. And at death. And at homophobia. And at closeted bisexuals who won't leave their wives and kids. And at AIDS. And at the way people misrepresent themselves in Internet chat rooms circa 1995. (No one had the bandwidth to post and browse photos those days, yet their connections here are suspiciously fast.) Directing and adapting his own play—produced at Intiman four years ago—has now given Lucas more control over all the things that used to make him angry. Yet he still can't rein in his emotions—much like poor, frustrated, grief-stricken screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard). As a result, Gaul is full of all kinds of powerful scenes—suffering, sex, forgiveness, betrayal, atonement, revenge—that grasp at themes of karma and moral accountability without reaching a coherent statement.
Part of the film indicts the heartless movie biz, suavely embodied by Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a prosperous producer who lives in a white ocean-view modernist palace with a no-horizon lap pool David Hockney would envy. There, too, swims his elegant wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter turned Malibu housewife and mother. Jeffrey offers Robert $1 million for his screenplay (The Dying Gaul) on the condition he change the gay lovers into a hetero couple. Surprisingly, Robert agrees. He has a child and ex-wife back in New York to support, so selling out almost seems morally preferable to defacing his art.
Corruption was never so easy or so fun. Suddenly Robert has friends, who form a cheerful surrogate family, a sunny alternative to his shrink. He also has writer's block back in his miserable apartment where he miserably jerks off to chat-room buddies, one of whom is secretly Elaine. And Jeffrey has secrets, too. "You can do anything you want," he tells Robert, "as long as you don't call it what it is." This applies both to the office and the bedroom, and to cyberspace, where Elaine begins to seriously mess with Robert's head. ("Suffering is a disease from which everyone may be cured," she tells him, perhaps quoting Stuart Smalley.) Of course, he has it coming: His dead lover screams "traitor" in a dream, and it emerges that Robert's karmic debts go way beyond the screenplay alternations.
Even if you don't know the play, it's pretty obvious that Gaul can only end in tears. "Everybody's lying," Lucas told this paper when in Seattle for the Intiman production. "And those combined lies are what creates the tragedy." The movie has been re-engineered a bit from the stage version (and also from its SIFF/Sundance edit). Lucas uses elements of the Hollywood whodunit, a genre that demands killers be clearly identified and punished. But everyone in Gaul is punished, and only Hollywood is to blame. It's certainly cathartic, and definitely well acted; I just wish Lucas were more clear in his ideas. (R)