The Dying Gaul

A fantastic premise is squandered in “The Dying Gaul,” only to be saved by a riveting final act. The film starts with lemonade, trades them in for lemons, and then makes lemonade out of them. Kind of a waste, but I suppose all’s well that ends well.

This is what you’d call an emotional suspense thriller, where it’s not physical danger you’re worried about (though it is a possibility), but rather the potential heartbreak, anguish and jealousy that the characters seem destined to suffer. The only question is who will be devastated by what, and when. Craig Lucas, directing his own script (which he adapted from his play), uses three characters to set up a delicate web of relationships that can only end badly, and he uses three excellent actors giving some of the best performances of their respective careers to do it: Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson.

It’s set in sunny Hollywood in 1995, where would-be screenwriter Robert Sandrich (Sarsgaard) is still reeling from the recent AIDS death of his lover. He has written a deeply autobiographical movie about the subject, called “The Dying Gaul” (it refers to an ancient Roman statue), and pitched it to a movie executive named Jeffrey (Scott). Jeffrey, a sincere, genuinely interesting man, loves the script and offers Robert $1 million for it, but with one condition: In order to make the film more marketable, Robert needs to change his boyfriend to a girlfriend.

There’s your fantastic premise. Robert is stuck in a horrible position, of either taking $1 million but betraying his boyfriend’s memory, or refusing the money and not getting his story told at all. He agrees to do it, but then finds there is no easy way. It’s more than just changing the character’s name; he would have to rewrite the entire screenplay.

He confers with Jeffrey and his wife Elaine (Clarkson), becoming friends with the couple and a regular guest at their fabulous Malibu home. Elaine, a former screenwriter who is now a stay-at-home mom, sympathizes with Robert’s plight — but it is remarkable how Campbell Scott plays Jeffrey so that we see his point of view, too. He’s not a typically shallow Hollywood exec who wants to put explosions and naked women in Robert’s downbeat drama. He genuinely loves the script and would do it as-is if the financial realities of Hollywood didn’t prevent it.

But unfortunately, this whole dilemma of how to rewrite Robert’s screenplay becomes all but forgotten when Robert and Jeffrey — a happily married man, you’ll recall — begin an affair. We’re laughing at what a quirky character Jeffrey is, seeming to flirt with Robert … and then, whoops, turns out he was serious, and now we have to follow THIS plot line. Sigh.

They sure do a fantastic job with it all, though, these actors. Campbell Scott is an extraordinary performer — see him particularly in “The Spanish Prisoner,” “Roger Dodger” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists” — and never more so than in “The Dying Gaul,” where his character is compelling and fascinating, every moment a surprise.

Witness also Peter Sarsgaard, another reliably interesting actor — his best work includes “Kinsey” and “Shattered Glass” — here trudging through an impressive range of emotions as Robert feels guilty for “cheating on” his dead lover by sleeping with Jeffrey, but euphoric at having made a connection with someone. There is a scene in which Robert breaks down and cries at a particularly vulnerable moment, and it is so real and honest as to be difficult to watch.

Then we come to Patricia Clarkson. (See: “The Station Agent,” “Pieces of April” and “Far from Heaven.”) As Elaine, her role is secondary — until she begins chatting online with Robert and slowly realizes her husband is having an affair with him. Her subsequent course of action is controversial, to say the least, and I admire Clarkson for making it believable, and for remaining a sympathetic character in the meantime.

How impressive is Lucas as a director? There’s an intense sequence where Robert is on the phone with Jeffrey while chatting online with Elaine, who is in the same house as Jeffrey, all of them keeping their activities secret from one another — and it’s wholly captivating. The general rule is that scenes of people typing at computers are not good “action” scenes, but Lucas defies convention in this case.

Eventually, as I said, the movie finds a way to be compelling again, and its final 20 minutes are absolutely spellbinding. Certain characters discover certain things, and because we are thoroughly involved in their lives now, we’re dying to know what they’re going to do with the information. I do wish Lucas had kept with the initial story about rewriting the screenplay, but where he winds up taking us is worthwhile, too.

B+ (1 hr., 45 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, partial nudity.)