From the cutesy screwball of You’ve Got Mail to the lurid gamesmanship of Closer, characters who toss dialogue back and forth via computer have always tried my patience; it just seems like a cheat to go to the movies to watch people typing. But in Craig Lucas’ The Dying Gaul, Patricia Clarkson, with her face of pensive beauty, takes tapping-away-at-the-keyboard acting to a whole new level. Clarkson plays a Hollywood producer’s posh and pampered wife, who learns that her husband, played with compartmentalized treacherousness by Campbell Scott, is cheating on her — with another man, a screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) he has seduced both sexually and professionally. You’d expect her to turn her fury on the husband — that she doesn’t is the film’s biggest flaw — but instead, she enters a chat room and toys with the screenwriter, subjecting him to a kind of soft-edged mental torture, even stealing the notes of his psychiatrist so that she can pretend to be his former lover, who died of AIDS. As Clarkson stares at the computer screen, her face shifts like a mood ring, from curiosity to compassion to cold vengeance. For once in a movie, typing is riveting.
All three lead performances in The Dying Gaul are brilliant. Scott, with his devious clipped joviality, makes the producer a study in how private duplicity can interlock with corruption in Hollywood, and Sarsgaard, as a tender soul with a cosmic capacity for rage, gives his fullest performance yet: He makes the suddenly hot screenwriter a deceptive naÏf — a man lured into a spiderweb, except that he’s a spider too. The Dying Gaul has too many contrivances, but as an act of sinister staging, it proves Lucas, the noted playwright, to be a born filmmaker.