Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

The tentative but conventionally rousing Dallas Buyers Club tells the extraordinary true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan good ol' boy who in the late 80s was given a death sentence when he became infected with the AIDS virus.  On the outset an unsavory, seemingly nasty character prone to homophobic, misogynistic and self-destructive outbursts all in the name of retaining his chauvinistic alpha male supremacy, Woodroof became an unlikely foot soldier in providing vital drugs and vitamins, as well as awareness at a time when the American consciousness was too busy piddling their thumbs as thousands of people died.  It's an important and significant story and chronicle of a not-so-distant past horror story, tackling a subject that Hollywood has for the most part been afraid and sketchy at best in telling despite all the red hearts that have so famously been adorned on some of the brightest and most beautiful movie stars in the last quarter century. 

In many ways, because of this and despite this, Dallas Buyers Club is a difficult movie to merely be judged on its own merits and tells a story too significant in recent American history to be ignored or deemed anything less than admirable even if the hopes, expectations and vitality of such a tale are far more deserving of something that soars rather than just exists.  Even more considering its been twenty years since Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia became one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to eve talk about AIDS.  Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club is a reverent by-the-numbers account of how Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a hick-ish electrician became one of the unwilling champions of a cause that was all but ignored by the medical and political machines of Reagan-era America.  Once contracted with the virus and given the thirty days left to live speech by doctors, Woodroof explored his options-- first by overdosing on AZT, the hazardous product being hyped up that was in the early process of being tested, then by exporting unapproved medications being sold south of the border and around the world.  Ingredients starts to click and slightly improve his condition and eventually he forms a membership club to his AIDS-afflicted neighbors.  By design, the film charts itself with the sort of muckraking elan of Erin Brockovich

 The problem is that the script is a little too reverent, too reserved and imposes too much of a beginning, middle and an end to his story, when a more streamlined approach might have roused more energy, more soul and more passion from its noble convictions.  Valleé stages the film with a gritty lived-in intensity that feels right and utilizes natural lighting which looks plenty evocative, but more often than not the script lets him down with so much exposition and conventional Hollywood muck muck that takes away from the center of its courageous true-life tale and unfortunately more times than not exposes the cracks in its bite-sized budget.  For a better recounting of a similar narrative, check out last years Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, an extraordinarily vivid dissection of what Dallas Buyers Club nearly glosses over.

Yet for every little moment in Dallas Buyers Club that reads a bit too forced or too on the nose like Woodroof's clashing with the medical establishment (expressed through Denis O'Hare's one-note performance as a doctor who cares more about his checkbook than his patients), the FDA (expressed through one dude!) or plainly cliché-ridden (like Jennifer Garner's poorly written role as the one Dallas doctor who stands up against the machine) the heart of the story is bridged by the marvelously acted dance between Ron and his girl friday-- an AIDS-infected transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto.)  What's perhaps conceived as a maudlin lesson in tolerance is driven into something of near alchemy because McConaghey and Leto are so magnetic despite some toothless patches in the screenplay.

What works splendidly and marks Dallas Buyers Club as a notch far above just well-intentioned time capsule film are the steady and ace performances that command the film with a gravity, generosity and humanity on which shades the micro-scope of the film into something larger and quite moving.  McConaughey, in the culmination of his great second act renaissance is soulfully alive and magnetic as Woodroof.  Deftly swerving the caricature of a bigoted rube who must learn to be tolerant, the actor brings a grand-scaled minimalism to his performance, subtly being awakened and pinged without completely changing or straying too far left of where a straight-and-arrowed Texan put in such a circumstance would believably veer.  The physical transformation of the once famously chiseled star will likely entrance awards bodies to droll, but the weight loss means nothing without the soul underneath it.  Jared Leto, whose revelatory, deserves equal plaudits for commitment and scale of emotion.

So while Dallas Buyers Club isn't quite the movie it could have been, it does exist and that's something that will just have to do for now.  B

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