Classic films noir set their double-crosses and dirty doings in the shadowed alleyways and light-deprived offices where greed, graft and lust thrive best. Like mushrooms and mold, bad behavior seems to prefer a dark, dank place. But even the brightest sunlight, most transparent glass houses and the bluest swimming pools can't keep the darkness from intruding in the clever, spry California noir The Dying Gaul.
Nifty, surprising and outrageously overplotted, The Dying Gaul changes its genre stripes so frequently, viewers may feel they've left a film fundamentally different than the one they entered.
Over a glass of mineral water and flurry of phone interruptions, young, hip movie mogul Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), and cynical, principled screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) discuss Robert's script for The Dying Gaul and the necessity of changing its gay lead to a straight one.
But Robert, who is gay, is reluctant to take out the homosexual content, which would be a direct affront to his identity and to the memory of his recently deceased lover, Malcolm. But the $1 million paycheck Jeffrey offers is simply too great an enticement and Robert caves.
Just when The Dying Gaul seems on firm genre ground, safely in The Player-style arena of self-conscious evisceration of Hollywood vanity and market-driven greed, The Dying Gaul pulls the flokati right out from under you.
From a vivisection of self-satisfied Los Angeles, the film transforms into a sexy film about the hot and bothered threesome that emerges when Jeffrey brings Robert home to meet the wife.
Former screenwriter and supercharged stay-at-home mom Elaine (Patricia Clarkson) falls in love with Robert's Dying Gaul script. Eager to get closer to Robert, she begins to anonymously engage him in gay Internet chat rooms, manipulating his heartbreak over Malcolm's death to achieve intimacy. Her ravenous husband, meanwhile, directs the same greedy X-ray attention to bedding Robert as he did to screwing the screenwriter's artistic integrity.
Writer/director Craig Lucas offers a frank, contemporary, savvy gay spin on noir romantic conventions, showing how fundamentally our identities have been transformed by the Internet and the greater sexual permissiveness of too-hip urban life. His stylistic flourishes are outrageously clever and over the top, too. When Lucas shows two silhouetted lovers in a rapturous embrace, it's a shocking jolt to our Hollywood heterosexual-primed consciousness. Here, instead of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck locking lips, it is Scott and Sarsgaard.
The Dying Gaul is as aggressively slick and smart as they come, perhaps a little too smart. Lucas seems to have vented every post-modern, genre- and gender-bending impulse into this adaptation of his Broadway play filled to the brim with sexual perversity, double-crosses, deception, murder and jealousy, but also an intense and heartfelt sense of romantic ardor. Despite his playfulness and love of conceptual flourishes, Lucas allows genuine angst and desire to emerge from his often self-interested characters. The gallivanting rhythms of The Dying Gaul, whose mood shifts from vengeful Greek myth to seedy Zalman King sex thriller, seem only natural when you consider Lucas' dramatic personal history: He was abandoned by his mother at birth and transformed in adulthood into a successful Broadway writer.
Art house babe Clarkson is utterly believable as a frustrated, sexually adventurous Hollywood wife. But Sarsgaard is the real show-stopper. He has shown a real awareness of the psychological and emotional underpinnings of sex in films such as Kinsey and The Center of the World, and his portrait of a man consumed by lust and loss in The Dying Gaul is utterly captivating.