Whether it’s movies about moviemaking, plays about playwrights or rap singles about how tough it is to be a rap star, entertainment about entertainment has always made my head ache. I just can’t stand the blithe assumption that an artist’s life is inherently interesting, even when it actually is. Except for the best novels about the business, from Nathanael West to Bruce Wagner, self-referential Hollywood repulses me. Sometimes it’s a bad idea to write what you know, and an even worse idea to have it performed at a crappy black-box theater in Culver City'and making it into a movie usually is the worst idea of all.
This has always been a bedrock principle of the way I look at media, but the second season of Entourage improbably changed my mind a bit, even though few filmed entertainments have ever fellated the industry more lovingly. The boys caper through a phony, hedonistic version of show biz, yet I absolutely love this reprehensible fiction. It’s a straight case of cool people doing cool things, with just enough plot and calculated observation to make me think I’m watching something smart. I was horrified to discover how much I liked Entourage, and I can’t wait to be horrified again this summer in Season 3.
What does all this have to do with The Dying Gaul, an eccentric new potboiler from director Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion)? Though the film itself doesn’t exactly suck, it again reminded me why entertainment based on entertainment usually does: When entertainers decide to navel-gaze, they’re the only ones who can see why it matters. And while The Dying Gaul’s proceedings are mostly entertaining before a dark and dishonest ending, all the usual posturing and shorthand for moral decay in the Hollywood milieu made me wish for a story about any place else'maybe the back alleys of Wichita like in The Ice Harvest, or Rent’s squalid Lower East Side. The characters talk about way too many things that could only happen in Hollywood and that’s not as much fun for the other 290 million of us.
This psychodrama entwines a screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard), a studio executive (Campbell Scott) and his wife (Patricia Clarkson), who betray, beguile and bang each other in a masochistic cycle of deceit and violence set in 1995. Lucas'the playwright who collaborated with Scott on the engrossing The Secret Lives of Dentists'has an alter ego in Robert (Sarsgaard), who gets an offer to sell his gay love story for $1 million to a slightly oily executive named Jeffrey (Scott). Their conversation in the writer’s convertible is full of both promising and repellent material. Jeffrey wants to turn it into a straight love story with a woman in a main lead because “America hates gaysâ€; Robert briefly resists before capitulating to the changes'and, improbably, to the bisexual exec’s advances.
Robert later meets Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), Jeffrey’s wife and a former screenwriter who loves the original story. She empathizes with Robert, who recently lost his longtime companion and still must deal with debt, other failed scripts and providing for his son. Things get weird from there, with Elaine disguising herself as a gay guy in an online chat room to stir things up with the vulnerable Robert.
The acting is predictably strong, and Lucas and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski have a few clever ideas on ways to illustrate the characters’ hermetically sealed lives, but the film’s main point about the movie business being two-faced and hypocritical is just tired. Lucas belatedly senses this, and he steers the film into bizarre dramatic territory that didn’t make any sense on first viewing. The Dying Gaul is named after the famed Roman statue, and Lucas tries to evoke the fatalistic elements of a Greek tragedy. Instead, he evokes the feeling of other tedious Hollywood melodramas where the industry’s mercilessness is the real villain.