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Fall 2013 Movie Review of the Week: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Fall 2013 Movie Review of the Week: “Dallas Buyers Club”
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Adrien Brody did it for “The Pianist”. Tom Hanks did it for “Cast Away”. Charlize Theron did it for “Monster”. Robert DeNiro did it for “Raging Bull”. And each time, “it” nudged the actor towards an Academy Award or a nomination. I’m talking about body-changing weight loss and gain. And now comes a film that is sparking conversation for its TWO lead actors, both of whom shed significant poundage to play AIDS-afflicted men in the late 1980s. Matthew McConaughy looks impossibly boney, and Jared Leto makes for a beautiful, slim transvestite in “Dallas Buyers’ Club”, the new drama from director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”).

But is weight-loss a performance? Certainly without it, it would be less convincing to believe the usually muscular McConaughy as a sick, dying man. But we need to look further than the physical to assess the impact of his take on this true-life story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic electrician who contracted HIV when it was still only associated with gay men and hemophiliacs.

At first, the sexist, bigoted Woodroof refuses to believe what his doctors (Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare) are telling him. He’s a tough-talking, bull-riding American cowboy who likes nothing more than a beer-drenched evening in the company of busty blondes.  A brief flashback might just explain his homophobia. Or he is just one of the 17% of HIV patients who contracted it through intravenous drug use?

Perhaps we will never know for sure. Woodroof died in 1992, seven years after being told he had a month left to live. This film explains how he defied the odds, circumvented FDA regulations and broke the law repeatedly in order to gain access to drugs not approved in the United States. It exposes the madness of a governmental system wrapped up in business interests and red-tape. It also illuminates the horror of those early years in the AIDS epidemic where there were no magic pills, no vaccines, no protease inhibitors. It’s a marvelous companion piece to David France’s vibrant documentary “How to Survive a Plague” which was Oscar nominated in 2012.

Woodroof is driven by a primordial urge to survive, but also by greed to make money from selling drugs from Mexico and Japan to the hundreds of HIV sufferers in Texas. Watching him battle the FDA, and work with a disbarred Mexican doctor (Griffin Dunne, almost recognizable) is part of the fun of this serious, yet never gloomy film. Seeing Woodroof find a way to outwit his disease is like watching Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch me if you can” … it’s exhilarating, even though we know it can’t last.

McConaughy is fine as Woodroof, but basically the Texas-born cowboy is playing a Texas-born cowboy, so his easy swagger and southern drawl are to be expected from this actor who has recently branched out into interesting territory (“Killer Joe”, “Mud”). More astounding is Leto’s disappearance into the fragile femininity of a cross-dressing homosexual called Rayon. Here’s an actor who seems to shun leading man material in favor of smaller films and supporting characters. Check him out in “Chapter 27” and see if you can find even a hint of Rayon.

As a piece of cinema, “Dallas Buyers’ Club” follows pretty rigid genre lines. Woodroof starts off as a hate-filled bigot, but in the course of the film and through his friendship with Rayon he learns tolerance, or at least sympathy for his fellow sufferers. Rayon is an invention of the screenwriters, and smacks of trite convenience: The odd couple pairing engenders a perfect arc for McConaughey’s character to travel.  It may be a tad formulaic, but with two anchoring performances, and a riveting subject matter, “Dallas Buyers’ Club” demands, and commands our attention.


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