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Suspenseful 'Dying Gaul' falls victim to abrupt ending

Craig Lucas's ''The Dying Gaul" is a peevish psychological potboiler set in Hollywood, with another fearsome performance from Peter Sarsgaard, an actor who could make creepy theater out of C-SPAN transcripts.

Lucas has the cruel paradoxes of the movie business on his mind, having adapted three of his own plays, including the AIDS drama ''Longtime Companion," into films. ''The Dying Gaul," which is also based on one of his plays, is the first film he's directed, and it feels personal.

Sarsgaard plays Robert Sandrich, a struggling screenwriter who's written a serious love story about a man and his terminally ill partner. He has a meeting with Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a Hollywood studio executive who loves (just loves) the script and wants to produce it. (Gus Van Sant is the mutual first choice to direct, because, Robert says, ''Truffaut is dead.")

There's one problem, though. Jeffrey wants to make the main characters a straight couple. And probably change the ending, too, since, as he insists, ''no one goes to the movies to have a bad time or to learn anything." (Here and throughout, Scott gives the character's condescension his usual laser focus.)

Robert storms out. Jeffrey heads him off at the studio gate, hops into the writer's convertible, and offers him a million dollars. Robert could really use the money. He's in debt, with a young son on the East Coast. Plus, the cash might somehow ease the pain of having lost his own sick partner, Malcolm, months before. Ignoring that his script is a tribute to Malcolm, he submits -- first to Jeffrey's compromises, then to his outrageous come-ons.

But Jeffrey has a wife, Elaine, who we know will be a force of some kind because she is played by Patricia Clarkson. Elaine is a former screenwriter, and when she reads Robert's original script, it knocks her out. She meets Robert and they hit it off. She empathizes with Robert's loss, in that warmly rapt way only Clarkson can. Then she asks him whether he visits online chat rooms. (He does.)

That new friendship and the men's affair take Lucas's picture to the sexual and emotional places Robert's own screenplay may be forbidden to go. Elaine disguises herself as a stranger and finds Robert in a gay chat room, where they begin a mesmerizing series of conversations.

The director has his actors type their responses for some encounters and speak to the camera for others. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski photographs Sarsgaard and Clarkson through a lens that leaves them looking encased in glass. When Robert's at his computer, his basement apartment is awash in blue light while a sinful crimson light bleeds through his window. The whole exercise feels like an incrimination.

Yet Lucas isn't only interested in how the film business manages to choke out the politics and the art. He's seized with the idea that the businessmen are rotten with sexual hypocrisy. ''The Dying Gaul," which is also the name of Robert's script, opens with that thunderous quotation from the sermon in ''Moby Dick": ''Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall."

Lucas, of course, is aiming that line at an industry he suspects is full of people like Jeffrey, while knowing that there are a similar number of people like Robert who'd sell themselves out as well. This all could be set elsewhere, too -- say in the world of Washington politics.

The film builds into a lurid and suspenseful thriller. The lead performances are pungent; the actors are locked in an emotionally oblique danse macabre, and you can't wait to see the ending. It's a letdown, though. The movie falls apart as it leaps to a silly, vague, jarringly abrupt conclusion, which is different from the finale of a version that played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

The other ending was inane, but it was also cynical in a way that paralleled the depressing showbiz contradictions Lucas wanted to dramatize. Now, the movie doesn't completely please, but more disappointing is that it no longer aims to appall, either.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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