At the film's center are three likable, fundamentally decent people who ultimately commit unpardonable acts. Jeffrey (played by Campbell Scott) is an intelligent, thoughtful Hollywood studio executive -- not the stereotypical smarmy type -- living a contented and comfortable life with his wife, Elaine, and their two children. The free-spirited and extraordinarily likable Elaine (the always brilliant Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter, is a devoted wife and mother. Nonetheless, she flits about in search of a purpose or, at the very least, a distraction.
Into their lives comes Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), a sweet, sad screenwriter mourning the death of his lover and agent, Malcolm. Jeffrey wants to buy The Dying Gaul, a script Robert has written about a gay couple dealing with AIDS and death. But the economics of Hollywood being what they are, Jeffrey wants to change the male lover to a female. Robert is not willing to sell out his story.
As part of his campaign to woo Robert, Jeffrey all but adopts him. So he, Elaine, and Robert seem to spend all their time together; Elaine and Robert, in fact, hit it off immediately, becoming almost intellectual lovers. But Elaine doesn't realize that Robert and her husband are also becoming intimately involved, on a very different level.
Robert opens up to Elaine, confessing behavior and actions he has never previously disclosed to anyone. When he remarks that he spends a lot of time in gay internet chat rooms, Elaine decides to go online; there, posing as a gay man, she engages him anonymously in conversation. His revelation about his relationship with Jeffrey sends Elaine into shock and sets off a tragic chain reaction of almost Greek proportions.
With The Dying Gaul (the title was inspired by a famous Roman statue that depicts a wounded warrior on the ground awaiting death), Lucas' smartest move was in hiring as his leads three of the most gifted actors working today. Clarkson, Sarsgaard, and Scott (who also starred in the film version of The Secret Lives of Dentists, written by Lucas) are all at the top of their game here, not afraid to play the most venomous aspects of human nature.
But what transpires is so over-the-top, so malevolent, so venal that it strains credulity. While the kinds of betrayal the characters engage in could understandably bring out the worst in people, the story itself has a hysterical quality. Rather than feel the film's inexorable march toward tragedy, you're more likely to feel nothing at all. The fault lies not with the actors, but with Lucas' screenplay. In the end, you can't help but wonder what The Dying Gaul is trying to say and, more important, how it justifies whatever that is. Not good questions to be asking at a film's conclusion.