Friday, November 22, 2013

In Theaters: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.  Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack.  Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Michael O'Neill. (R, 116 mins)

One of the best things to happen to American cinema over the past couple of years has been seeing Matthew McConaughey actually giving a shit about acting and finally living up to the media hype that came with his 1996 breakthrough A TIME TO KILL.  Up until a few years ago, after a string of vapid romantic comedies that was broken up by an occasional hit like 2006's WE ARE MARSHALL, his career bottomed out with 2008's SURFER, DUDE, a vanity project that reinforced every shirtless, laid-back, nude bongo-playing, stoner stereotype that turned him into a punchline.  By then, even his most ardent defenders had grown tired of his schtick.  He took a break and returned with 2011's THE LINCOLN LAWYER, followed by a universally-acclaimed 2012 that saw supporting turns in Richard Linklater's BERNIE and Steven Soderbergh's MAGIC MIKE, along with his terrifying performance and an instantly-legendary scene involving a chicken leg in William Friedkin's KILLER JOE.  This year already saw one Oscar-caliber performance in Jeff Nichols' MUD.  With the fact-based DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, McConaughey makes it known once and for all that he's a Serious Actor, losing nearly 40 lbs to play AIDS patient Ron Woodroof.

In 1985 Dallas, as Rock Hudson's death makes national news, Woodroof is a hard-partying, heavy-drinking, drug-abusing, rodeo-riding, redneck con man and electrician with a long history of casual, anonymous, and unprotected sex.  When he's injured on the job, a blood test in the hospital reveals his HIV-positive status and he's given 30 days to live.  Initially refusing to believe that he's got a disease that only affects "faggots and cocksuckers," the homophobic Woodroof tries to combat the illness with the illegally-obtained experimental drug AZT, which is just entering use in human trials after being developed two decades earlier for cancer treatment and shelved for its ineffectiveness. When the unregulated dosage and his continued alcohol and cocaine abuse destroy what's left of his immune system and he develops AIDS, he's ostracized by his good-ole'-boy buddies.  Furious that many drug and natural or vitamin-related treatments haven't received FDA approval (the makers of AZT paid big money to get their drug approved, despite it only producing questionable results at the recommended dosage), Woodroof spends some time in a Mexican hospital under the treatment of a doctor (Griffin Dunne) who lost his license in the US for prescribing unapproved medication.  Always looking for a quick-money deal, Woodroof starts smuggling large amounts of these vitamins and natural treatments into the US and creates the "Dallas Buyers Club," a member-based organization where dues are paid and medication is then free, thus disqualifying him as a "drug dealer."  He also befriends an HIV-positive transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) and compassionate Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner, given little to do in a largely thankless role), who rebels against her company-man boss (Denis O'Hare), who's committed to pushing AZT on all of his patients.

While it does admirably shine a spotlight on the relative ignorance and false assumptions of the early days of AIDS (Ron's friends think they can get AIDS by touching him), the script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack doesn't really offer any surprises in its structure or character arcs.  We have little doubt that the racist, homophobic Woodroof will see the error of his ways and change his attitude once his buddies reject him and think he's a closeted homosexual.  We know that he'll come around to respecting and valuing the friendship of Rayon.  We know that Dr. Saks will turn against her boss and fight the good fight.  There's also an asshole FDA rep (Michael O'Neill), who's constantly hounding Woodroof and couldn't be any more dastardly if he was wearing a monocle and twirling his mustache.  Where DALLAS BUYERS CLUB excels is in the performances of McConaughey and Leto.  Leto, no stranger to altering his physical appearance for a role (he gained nearly 70 lbs to play John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman in 2008's barely-released CHAPTER 27), has never been better and creates a sympathetic and truly tragic figure.  As good as he is and as committed as he is to the project, McConaughey's physical appearance--think Christian Bale's weight loss for THE MACHINIST--makes a bigger impression than his acting here.  He's very good, and an Oscar nomination is pretty much guaranteed, but he was better in both KILLER JOE and MUD, and his performance, like the entire film, has too much of an "Oscar bait" feeling to it.  Looking back and replaying DALLAS BUYERS CLUB in your head, you may find yourself being more impressed with Leto when it's all said and done.

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