If you’re a fan of Matthew McConaughey, you know that he once liked to mix his serious and action-oriented offerings with some romantic-comedy fluff (where he got to smile and peacock around for an hour and a half with a beautiful lady). But in the last couple of years he’s changed gears, shedding himself of any and all “romantic” tropes to focus on the meatier, and for the most part, complex roles. From The Lincoln Lawyer to Mud, McConaughey is like a phoenix rising from the ashes as an actor reborn, carving out a new voice to speak with (and if the previews for The Wolf of Wall Street are any indication, a howling one at that). With his newest film, Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey has officially solidified his transition from lovable goofball into genuine auteur.
McConaughey, looking worse than a supermodel on a two-year hunger strike, plays real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodruff, who started up a company to dispense alternative drugs to AIDS patients that weren’t getting the treatments they deserved or required at regular hospitals due to FDA restrictions. His bigoted attitude and extreme behavior in everything he does (from sex to drugs to gambling) sets the table for what should have been an uncomfortable, emotional journey of a man fighting to live with what, in the mid-80s, was still an extremely unknown disease associated mostly with homosexual activity.
But it never truly gets off the ground as a powerfully deep character study. Instead, it spends a lot of its time focusing on the inexcusable practices of the Food and Drug Administration, which strips the film of a lot of its affection for those afflicted with HIV and their struggle to survive. This includes Rayon (played with remarkable sincerity by Jared Leto), who befriends Ron despite his hatred for everything homosexual. This friendship, while nicely developed, could have gone a lot further than it was allowed to go, leaving the impact from the events that transpire from truly blossoming.
The same goes for all of the other people Ron attaches himself to. After being diagnosed with AIDS and given thirty days to live, Ron pursues as many drugs and treatments as he can, eventually ending up in Mexico where a doctor (Griffin Dunne) introduces him to several natural and non-toxic medicines (and lifestyle changes) that would help alleviate the symptoms of the HIV virus.
What is, at first, a nice way to make money, Ron sells the drugs to the patients that have no other choice (or are as fed up with the hospitals lack of help and support as he is), which eventually leads to starting the Dallas Buyers Club, in which “subscribers” pay a small monthly fee for all the drugs they need. In so doing, Ron makes various enemies, including the head of the FDA (Michael O’Neill) and the chief of staff at the hospital (Denis O’Hare), both of whom spend more time and energy to stop Ron from subverting the law than trying to aid those he’s successfully helping.
The FDA, in keeping Ron from conducting business because he’s selling unapproved drugs (and because their focus is strictly on developing a toxic drug known as AZT), only proves that the government, in all of its perceived sympathy, are only concerned in approving and distributing drugs that they can profit from instead of those that are far healthier and actually work. Ron has the research to back up his claims, but the FDA and the hospitals don’t want anything to do with a rogue whose only desire is to pilfer from their business. In essence, to give in to Ron would be to give away their power (and their bottom line).
It’s a worthy topic of discussion, to be sure, but not at the expense of the characters, which by the end seem to simply be markers in the road of Ron’s journey rather than life-altering substances. When his best friends and co-workers all but abandon him because they believe him to be a queer, the passion that McConaughey displays in his anger and fear is palpable. It’s a shame that the same fervor couldn’t be explored in the connection with his cop buddy (Steve Zahn in a throwaway supporting role) and the inspiration he finds in the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (a rather stale Jennifer Garner).
This slight disconnect forces the film to become a facts-only memoir. If it wasn’t for McConaughey’s stunning portrayal of a man who became a beacon of hope to so many people at a time when so many were willing to abandon them because of their lifestyle, the film would have fallen quite flat and insignificant. Instead, it does softly radiate with importance, and McConaughey holds it all together with just the right amount of stamina.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Walking With Dinosaurs and Her. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.