Big Bad FDA 

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto turn in Academy Award worthy performances in Dallas Buyers Club

One of the most essential scenes in understanding the transformation of Matthew McConaughey's career is, as it happens, one of the least essential scenes in The Dallas Buyers Club. It's an innocuous dinner conversation between AIDS patient Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) and his empathetic but largely helpless doctor (Jennifer Garner). Woodroof, a hard-drinking electrician and rodeo hand who could die at virtually any moment, is turning on the charm to thank or sweet-talk the pretty doctor, or just gauge what he still has left.

Five or six years ago, scenes like this were what McConaughey was known for—the smooth-talking lady-killer. Some 60 pounds lighter, when he smiles broadly at Garner, we see muscles stretched tight in his gaunt face, muscles he has no occasion to use anywhere else in this film, either physically or emotionally. That is really the shell of McConaughey on display in The Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on real events. He's not just a handsome face anymore.

He's been on this path for a couple years, doing very good work in films like Mud and Magic Mike. And though Jared Leto deserves heaps of praise for own terrific performance as Woodroof's transvestite business partner, it's McConaughey who is chopping down the mountains. There's no question that this is his finest work and one of the signature performances of 2013. What was the trigger that got him to ditch the easy money of bad romantic comedies like Fool's Gold and Failure to Launch? Outside of The Paperboy—which was a wild missed swing by almost everyone involved, notably Nicole Kidman and director Lee Daniels—McConaughey has been superb for about half a dozen consecutive movies. His previous record was probably, I dunno, one.

He needs every ounce of his newfound abilities in Dallas Buyers Club. Woodroof liked booze, cocaine and fast, easy women. In the early 1980s, that was not an uncommon recipe for fun. But Woodroof contracted HIV (the film indicates it was from unprotected sex and not possible intravenous drug use), and by the time it's diagnosed, he has full-blown AIDS. Ron Woodroof has 30 days to live, give or take.

His doctors put him on AZT, which was then in fast-tracked clinical trials. Unsafe dosages wreaked havoc with already jeopardized immune systems, and Woodroof was no exception. Hospitalized toward the end of his life expectancy, he's rooming with Ray, or Rayon (Leto), who is also taking part in the trials. Woodroof's growing defensiveness over suggestions about his own sexuality make their meeting and subsequent relationship pretty rocky.

This isn't a film about patients coping with AIDS or even about looking past your own preconceived notions about people. More than anything, the subject that takes over is Woodroof's fight against the FDA. In the mid-1980s, patients waited to die more than they waited for a cure, but Woodroof tried to buck the system. After visiting a clinic in Mexico, where his condition improved during three months of bed rest, he hit upon an idea. Importing vitamins and proteins unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration to combat AIDS, but which helped him, might do more than just keep Woodroof alive. It could also make him money.

Soon, even the thought of profit turns into helping hundreds of people survive. When the FDA is on his trail for selling unapproved substances, he opens a club. Selling memberships at $400 a pop, Woodroof and Rayon give the meds away for free. That doesn't stop the feds for long, though, and the whole thing paints the FDA in an incredibly negative light—slow to react, uncaring, incompetent, and in the pocket of Big Pharma.

Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée is in control of the proceedings, easier said than done with this topic. He understands that this is by and large an actor's exercise, and he avoids the usual pratfalls that accompany a lot of Very Serious Social Movies. AIDS, in fact, is not treated any differently than cancer would be. It's a killer in this film, not a cause. And while his actors upped their games by dropping significant weight, he doesn't push that into the spotlight. However, both McConaughey and Leto are downright wraithlike. It hurts to watch them move.

Like McConaughey, Leto is probably looking at an Oscar nomination, but they'll probably have to go head to head with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in their respective categories.

The screenplay gets a tiny bit preachy, clanging that bell about the big, bad FDA, but it's a minor ripple in an otherwise excellent film. Ron Woodroof's final years are a fascinating story that time had forgotten. But largely thanks to Matthew McConaughey's portrayal, that's not likely to happen again anytime soon.

Dallas Buyers Club
Rated R · 117 minutes · 2014
Official Site: www.focusfeatures.com/dallas_buyers_club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Producer: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter, David Bushell, Nathan Ross, Tony Notargiacomo, Joe Newcomb, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma and Cassian Elwes
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O'Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne and Kevin Rankin


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What others are saying (14)

New Times San Luis Obispo Review: Dallas Buyers Club Ken Korman says Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are astonishing in this period drama by Ken Korman 11/25/2013
11 more reviews...
East Bay Express Free Will Astrology Horoscopes for the week of September 25-October 1. by Rob Brezsny 09/24/2014
North Coast Journal Better Men by John J. Bennett 11/21/2013
Gambit Review: Dallas Buyers Club Ken Korman says Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are astonishing in this period drama by Ken Korman 11/25/2013
The Coast Halifax Dallas Buyers Club Leto, the awards are coming for you by Jacob Boon 11/21/2013
Creative Loafing Tampa Dallas Buyers Club is an acting clinic McConaughey and Leto ably wrangle tough roles in the 1980s AIDS drama. by Joe Bardi 11/21/2013
Boise Weekly Dallas Buyers Club: The Power to Heal McConaughey, back to his usual chiseled frame for the Toronto premiere, flashed his familiar grin as the audience greeted him and his castmates with a wave of ovations. by George Prentice 11/20/2013
Portland Mercury L-I-V-I-N Dallas Buyers Club is just alright, alright. by Ned Lannamann 11/06/2013
North Coast Journal Where's the Fire? Dallas wins this movie week by John J. Bennett 11/28/2013
Memphis Flyer Deep in the Heart Dallas Buyers Club tackles AIDS and acceptance. by Greg Akers 11/21/2013
Indy Week Dallas Buyers Club is a drama of the AIDS crisis As good as Matthew McConaughey is here—and this is the performance of his suddenly rising career—he is repeatedly upstaged by Jared Leto. by Neil Morris 11/20/2013
Colorado Springs Independent Matthew McConaughey is a tough but marvelous patient in Dallas Buyers Club Dallas Buyers Club may be historical, but it does an excellent job of tapping into outrage over the state of healthcare in America. by MaryAnn Johanson 11/20/2013

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