Scott, Sarsgaard Tangle in Gaul

The Dying Gaul is Gaslight with e-mail. As a first-time directorial effort by writer Craig Lucas, it’s an imaginative, compelling and respectable failure, a psychological, postmodern film noir with plenty of conflict and no resolution, better suited to the stage than screen. But it says something about the dreams and disillusionments of Hollywood, and even though the final 15 minutes crash and burn badly, it earns the highest compliment I can pay any movie today: It isn’t dull.

Basically, it’s a three-handed game of intellectual tag played by a trio of actors with the force of an entire Olympic running team. Peter Sarsgaard is Robert, a struggling outsider who gets seduced by Hollywood in more ways than one, and ends up swimming with sharks who eat him alive in more ways than one. Robert’s life on the fringe of a dead-end street changes dramatically when the heart and sweat he has poured into an autobiographical screenplay about the death of his lover from AIDS attracts the interest of a mainstream studio. The title is The Dying Gaul, inspired by the statue of a naked soldier in a Rome museum. Campbell Scott is Jeffrey, the studio mogul who offers Robert a million dollars for his script, convincing him that he’s open to the most esoteric ideas, as long as they have the broadest popular appeal. Robert is needy and naïve enough to believe him.

And everything seems too good to be true, especially after the script is read and approved by Jeffrey’s brainy, bored wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former writer stuck in a Malibu beach house with her computer, two kids and too much money and time to waste. Jeffrey and Elaine bring Robert into their intimate fold, where he finds unexpected happiness—but everything is temporary in the movie world, especially the illusion of security. Suddenly, Jeffrey suggests that the movie would be more commercial if the dying lover was a woman. Jeffrey: “Most people hate gay people.” Robert, defensively: “What about Philadelphia?” Jeffrey: “ Philadelphia was a movie about a man who hates gay people.”

While Jeffrey starts changing Robert’s script, Elaine starts working on his mind. Obsessed with his pain, she’s fascinated to learn that he spends a lot of time having anonymous sex in gay chat rooms and pays an enormous price for her curiosity. Jeffrey is handsome, charming, manipulative and ruthless. He’s also a horny bisexual who takes one look at the sensitive, talented Robert and sees breakfast. Motivated partly by his need to play the Hollywood power game and control his writer’s life and work, and partly by a genuinely avaricious lust, Jeffrey manages to seduce Robert and reduce him to a state of mindless confusion. (The sex scenes between Mr. Scott and Mr. Sarsgaard are almost embarrassingly graphic.) Meanwhile, Elaine invades the writer’s privacy by posing as a hot guy who seeks him out on a gay hotline, but her secret delight turns sour when she worms out of him the details of the affair with her husband. Shocked senseless, the once sweet and caring Elaine—who turns out to be more calculating and diabolical than anyone imagined—cleverly orchestrates her own form of technological revenge.

This is where the movie starts to fall apart. Pretending to be the ghost of his dead lover, Elaine plays games with Robert’s conscience, feeding on his vulnerability and guilt, and convincing him he’s being contacted from “the other side” in a series of e-mails with the user ID “Arck Angell.” As they both exchange the kind of information that leads to inevitable tragedy, credulity is challenged. But when prey becomes predator and Robert turns the tables and does something fiendish with a poison root that he shaves into the family’s beach picnic lunch, well … half of the audience will be head-scratching and the other half will be hooting with laughter.

Craig Lucas the director doesn’t know what to do with Craig Lucas the writer. (I’ve seen this movie with two different endings, and neither one of them worked.) The setup that leads to the final tragic revenge takes too long, and ultimately, when the movie turns from a cynical send-up of Hollywood hypocrisy to a modern-dress Greek tragedy with uncomfortable repercussions, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be about. All three of the lead characters are lying and deceitful, but they’re also engaging, so what are we supposed to feel about them? How could so many sound and challenging modern ideas sink to the level of Victorian melodrama in such a short time?

But whatever its flaws, the love triangle in The Dying Gaul focuses on three astounding performances that are nothing short of heroic. As the betrayed wife driven to madness, the riveting Patricia Clarkson gets a jet-propelled opportunity to run a gamut of emotions. Peter Sarsgaard excels at playing a deceptively normal, everyday person with an underlying neurotic tension that keeps you braced for the unexpected. And Campbell Scott—glamorous, sexy and always unpredictable—takes on the most difficult tasks in one film after another, thrillingly stripping away the pretense until he trembles with truth. His emotions are on his face; his feelings are in his eyes. He’s subtle yet in control of every scene, acting the internal conflict of his characters with real craft. And in the end, he makes it all look effortless. The actors in The Dying Gaul are alive from start to finish, even if the movie only meets them halfway.

War Junkies

The unsettling savagery of U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War blazes to life in Sam Mendes’ muscular, noisy and (I’m sorry to say) pointless war movie. A “jarhead” is a Marine. Misery and death accompanied the jarheads in their daily routine as much as their assault weapons. Anthony Swofford, a.k.a. Swoff and played by the increasingly versatile Jake Gyllenhaal, was a 20-year-old, third-generation Marine enlistee from Sacramento, Calif., when he reached the Persian Gulf in 1990 on a two-month tour of duty as a sniper. Thirteen years later, his experiences were published in a nonfiction best-seller, Jarhead.

That book is now a war movie without much war, a killing spree without much onscreen killing and a grim reminder of mean-spirited American aggression without much wisdom, humanity or leadership. Following a battalion of jarheads through basic training, then the psychological terror and physical punishment of combat, doesn’t add up to much in the final analysis. Even if you’re queer for war movies, you will undoubtedly end up wondering why anyone with an I.Q. of more than 70 would ever want to be a jarhead in the first place.

This is a far cry from kind of theatrical splendor for which Britain’s Sam Mendes is acclaimed (lavish Shakespearean crowd-pleasers in London and jaunty revivals of Cabaret and Gypsy on Broadway), but he does occasionally lace the boredom and horror of war with a few tension-relieving laughs. (Even while buried in a foxhole of sand waiting for an enemy attack, jarheads were nothing if not practical jokers.) And the details are grimly cataloged. Arriving at the Marine boot camp, Swoff’s battalion is insulted, humiliated, abused and reduced to human rubble by a brutal staff sergeant (Jamie Foxx) before they can get their shave and their boots on. You get the hours of crawling through mud under barbed wire, the gallons of liquor consumption, the burning of the Marine symbol into their flesh with a branding iron, and the philosophy screamed into their ears (“Your mission is to kill me! My mission is to kill you first!”) that turns even the brightest boys into savages. No wonder every person hates every other single person in his gun sights before they ever leave the post.

Once in “The Suck,” you get the dehydration, the pain and the duties (cleaning outhouse septics, threatening each other with their own weapons) that erase all memories of sanity back where they came from. When they start out, these are guys who are proud of their flag, love their President, feel patriotic toward their country, and seem innocent enough to serve all three without protest. One of the big questions you will ask yourself is “Why?” In case you forgot, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, U.S. forces were dispatched to the sand dunes of Hell to protect the Saudi oil fields and “kick some Iraqi ass.” (Why does this sound familiar in 2005?) The movie says, “Every war is different, every war is the same.” (Why does this bromide work for 10-second sound bites in TV trailers, but make no sense under scrutiny?) By the time the friends Mr. Swofford forged out of the Desert Storm futility return home from the Persian Gulf, some will commit suicide from the nightmares and the shame, others will fight drug and alcohol addictions that grew out of the experience and try to assimilate again into the society they left behind, and all of them will find their values, spirits and hopes eroded to a diminished capacity. Like I said, you have to like war pictures, and even if you do, you’ll quickly discover you’ve seen it all before, in better war pictures than Jarhead.

William Broyles Jr.’s script adaptation gets all of the filthy, bickering, sex-obsessed dialogue down with such accuracy that only a small audience may want to hear it with open ears, and there are some fine performances, especially by Mr. Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard (who has played so many fastidious homosexuals it’s surprising to see him as a dirty, bald-headed grunt), Lucas Black (as the only political rebel in the platoon, who questions the moral authority of the people who sent them all into harm’s way from the get-go) and Brian Geraghty (as the shy, homesick company misfit). Photographing them lost in the desert at night, surrounded by burning oil wells and blackened corpses, director Mendes turns the movie surreal. But since Jarhead has no plot, these scenes don’t lead to anything. From searching the horizon through the end of a rifle while chewing bubble gum, to playing touch football in soaring heat wearing full combat gear, the intention is to make the jarheads look like your sons, schoolmates and kid brothers. But as well cast as the actors are, the soldiers they play never rise above the level of war-movie clichés. The final irony—they all somehow manage to survive without ever firing their ammo at the enemy one time—is accompanied by another depressing dirge by the terminally depressing Tom Waits. With no epic plot, no epic dimension, and no epic point of view about the Gulf War or any other war, Jarhead is just another epic disappointment.

Mary, Mary

For pure musical enchantment, don’t bother to stop for red lights in your rush to see Mary Cleere Haran at Feinstein’s at the Regency. “Come home, all is forgiven!” cried her fans when she stayed away too long. Excelsior! She’s back where she belongs, nourished by neon—sleek, alluring and singing a tribute to the great songwriter Harry Warren (1893-1981) that no intelligent music lover should even think about missing. In the rarefied yet overcrowded cabaret world, Mary is in a class by herself.

With her droll intelligence, witty writing and romantic voice, she examines with passion and focus a man whose career in Hollywood musicals from 1935 to 1957 produced more hit songs than Kern, Berlin or the Gershwins, but who mysteriously never became as famous a household name as those other icons. Fed by her lust for old movies, Mary hopes to change this oversight. And when she peels away the tinsel and gauze, the audience is both mesmerized and awed by one smash standard after another.

Beginning with the early songs written with his partner, Al Dubin, for the old Warner Brothers Gold Digger movies, right up to his final days creating special material for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the Warren catalog is thoroughly and captivatingly covered, with bassist Sean Smith and ace pianist Don Rebic providing a lush hammock of chords for her to swing in. I don’t share Mary’s passion for all of the songs from those early Busby Berkeley potboilers with Ruby Keeler, but she celebrates the hustlers, grifters and party girls of those backstage scores with such panache that “42nd Street,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” are given a new edge. Not since Doris Day dusted it off in My Dream Is Yours in 1949 has anyone heard so dreamy a version of “I’ll String Along With You.”

The serious work commenced after the partnership with Dubin, when Warren teamed up with Mack Gordon for lushly scored Fox musicals. Finally, he reached his zenith when he joined the Arthur Freed unit at MGM and collaborated with Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Ralph Blane to create masterpieces for Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams. He knew no limitations, and even in the midnight hours of his career, the lousy “That’s Amore,” which he hated, became a hit for Dean Martin. Mercifully, Mary doesn’t sing it. But she does turn Garland’s “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from The Harvey Girls into a brand-new song filled with enough emotional subtexts to bring tears to your eyes. Mary Cleere Haran’s biggest problem here is knowing what to leave out. She leaves enough in to make you want more. Sleek and charming as a Schiaparelli perfume bottle and warm as brandy, she’s pretty damned near perfect. Dear Mary, is it clear that we love you? Scott, Sarsgaard Tangle in Gaul