Niagara Gazette

November 19, 2013

CALLERI: 'Dallas Buyers Club' looks at a different facet of the AIDS epidemic

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — There are so many names being bandied about for an Academy Award nomination for best actor, that a traffic jam is forming. You’ve got Bruce Dern for “Nebraska,” Robert Redford for “All Is Lost,” Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” Chiwetel Ejiofor for “12 Years A Slave,” Joaquin Phoenix for “Her,” Tom Hanks for “Captain Phillips,” Michael B. Jordan for “Fruitvale Station,” and Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyers Club.”

McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a hard-drinking, part-time electrician and occasional rodeo bull-riding Texan, who picks up odd jobs and available women, all the while doing illegal drugs, especially cocaine. Notoriety will find him after he’s diagnosed with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

Woodruff is a classic cock-of-the-walk, almost the same kind of brash, loosey goosey character that McConaughey has been playing for most of his on-screen life. Usually they are successful scamps, unafraid to revel in their handsomeness. McConaughey should pay royalties to Peter Pan.

His rodeo rider is a marginally-employable, foul-mouthed redneck; a crude, fast-talking fellow gifted with a line of patter as long as the Lone Star state is wide. Women fall into bed with him and men admire him. Even on the wrong side of the tracks, there’s always a kingpin.

Rather than have his newest charmer continually sell sexual snake oil with a wink and a smile to every female practically seduced just by the air around him, McConaughey’s character is compelled to put down his every-present bottle of beer and take stock of his mortality. During a visit to a hospital after an accident at work, he’s told he’s contracted H.I.V and has, at best, a month to live.

Because of poor choices made by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee in shaping “Dallas Buyers Club,” I think it’s safe to say that you probably never thought of the AIDS epidemic as fodder for an antic caper adventure. But that’s what we get with this misguided movie.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is based on a true story. Woodruff was an actual person and his behavior, while certainly elevated for questionable entertainment value, is rooted in what’s presented as history. Not only was he alleged eye-candy to women, but he was also a classic homophobe and racist.

After he was told that hopeful anti-AIDS drugs could not clear Food And Drug Administration protocols and hurdles, and while continuing to scorn the so-called gay lifestyle, Woodruff started smuggling in illegal medication from Mexico, which he sold to gay men through his buyers club. He even went to Japan. These anti-AIDS pill clubs, which charged dues to evade federal regulations, also existed in other cities across America, a fact downplayed in the film. You would think they didn’t communicate with each other.

Woodruff quickly became popular, rich and regionally famous in his new persona as a battler against pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and the United States government.

Very quickly, the film establishes its central character. Already alarmingly thin, he’s first seen having sex in a holding pen at a rodeo. There are no two ways about it, the guy’s a drunken pig. Woodruff dismisses the AIDS diagnosis, and he rejects his impending death. Unable to procure the drugs he thinks will help him, he turns to a shady doctor in Mexico (played by a grizzled Griffin Dunne). Woodruff soon becomes a medicinal guardian angel for Dallas homosexuals who have AIDS. He also uses the pills he sells, and his own health improves greatly.

The movie also falters because of the tone-deaf screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Facts skate superficially across a pond of breathless heroics. We get the gist of Woodruff’s fight, but not the depth.

We also get caper comedy, which undercuts the seriousness of the truth about the early years of AIDS. For this movie, the homophobic politics and the sociological hand-wringing of the 1980s might as well have happened on the moon.

One dull FDA enforcer comes and goes. A female doctor (Jennifer Garner) has little to do except fret about Woodruff, and after some of his former drinking buddies belittle him, a transvestite becomes his best friend. This seems like almost too much of a Hollywood invention to be true. Woodruff is first repelled, then fascinated by the wisp of a man named Rayon. Jared Leto immerses himself in this character. He’s a welcome bit of calm amidst the manic behavior exhibited by Woodruff, although the shallow screenplay negates the true force he must have been. Steve Zahn adds some nice humanity as a caring policeman.

McConaughey lost an extensive amount of weight for his role, and this may get him an Oscar nomination. In my book, it shouldn’t. He may be emaciated, but he’s still playing the same obnoxious good ol’ boy dancing the same tiresome dance.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.