Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

"Dallas Buyers Club" is the latest feather Matthew McConaughey can add to his headdress along his recent dominating drive to become a "real actor".  Between this, "Killer Joe", "Bernie", "Mud", and the upcoming "Wolf of Wall Street" its easy to say that McConaughey has had the best two years of any actor currently working.  And the funny thing is, other than firing his last agent, I cannot actually see what McConaughey is doing differently.  He's the kind of actor who really never disappears into a role, he just rides on his own natural charisma and talent.  Even in "Dallas Buyers Club", which make no mistake, is a very good Matthew McConaughey performance, its still obviously the same guy from "Failure to Launch" or "Contact"*.  In this movie, McConaughey lost what looks to be fifty pounds, he has gone from a proud red-blooded southern fried ubermench to Ichabod Crane.  But even in that freakishly long-necked, skinny, and horribly twisted frame, its still Matthew McConaughey's same charming southern drawl, with a singsong invitation to every lady in the audience.  And there's nothing wrong with it, he's always been a strong leading man.  Only now he's getting better roles.

If you've ever doubted that Matthew McConaughey is a great actor, go watch one of his worst movies.  There are plenty, honestly.  Try "Reign of Fire" or the massive flop "Sahara" or even McConaughey's brief run as a redneck serial killer in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation".  He elevates all mediocre material given him, he's just a fun person to be around.  Yeah, he's kind of a douche bag, hanging out with (now) notorious bastard Lance Armstrong, and having stoned midnight naked bongo sessions.  But even if you really, really hated "Fool's Gold", wouldn't you want to strip down, and bash your hands drunkenly on bongos with Matthew McConaughey at the dead hours of the morning?  This guy is so cool he even elevates the otherwise entirely mediocre "Dallas Buyers Club".

This is one of those movies that begins with a great deal of promise, seemingly very dramatic and heavy though with a promise of screwball antics and hustle.  McConaughey plays a Texas oil industry electrician, the real-life Ron Woodroof, who loves anonymous Eighties sex only nearly as much as he loves playing cards, drinking shots of bourbon, snorting lines of cocaine, and the rodeo.  He's as straight and homophobic as you'd expect any average Texan roughneck to be, only his freewheeling rambling life style has given him AIDS, which at the time was both a death sentence and consider irrefutable proof of being gay.  He loses his friends, his health, his job, and his home all in a span of a month, which is exactly as long as the doctors say he has to live.  In order to survive, McConaughey travels to Mexico to procure untested experimental drugs, and then realizes he has a fantastic business opportunity:  sell his illicit (though technically not illegal) wares to all of the other HIV and AIDS suffering groups in Texas.  So the movie is McConaughey dancing one step ahead of the DEA, the FDA, and the IRS, in a barely legal bubble allowing him and his largely homosexual clientele to survive.  Which all sounds like a very interesting movie, which it is.  Until however, it largely collapses in the third act, turning into a mostly by-the-numbers biopic with badly simplistic black and white morality, only saved by strong performances which dominate the movie.

Both of the leads of this movie, McConaughey and his co-star, Jared "the Red Duke" Leto, lost massive amounts of weight in order to portray the visual nightmare that is the effect AIDS has on the body.  This is the first time I know of that McConaughey has allowed himself to be anything other than a muscled grinning slice of Southern beefsteak, and its definitely a shocking turn when just six months ago in "Mud", he was perfect human specimen, and now he looks like the father from "Coraline".  Jared Leto, however, has a history of horrific body transformations.  He became basically a skeleton in one of the most disturbing movies ever made, "Requiem for a Dream", and seven years later gained hundreds of pounds rapidly to play Mark David Chapman in the otherwise completely forgotten "Chapter 27".  The weight gain was so severe for Leto that he actually developed gout and had to be wheelchaired onto set.  He's one of those actors that is so desperate for an Oscar he should probably take up dropping leaflets onto Hollywood, and will probably kill himself for the opportunity.  I would watch out in next year's Oscars, because if Leto does not get at least nominated, he'll probably break into the Dolby Theater and murder everybody with poison gas embedded within his tooth.

To be fair to Leto, his role in this movie is actually one of the strongest, almost outshining McConaughey.  He plays a sweet drug addicted transvestite who becomes Ron Woodroof's business partner and main contact into Texas' gay underground, allowing the eponymous Dallas Buyers Club to grow.  Jared Leto carried himself with a strong confidence and intensity, even as his character continues to break down and fall closer and closer to the end.  It also helps that Jared Leto doesn't exactly make for an unattractive chick, his face is just feminine enough that you might even wonder if a real woman was playing this role.  So for the good of Jared Leto's health and thanks to the strength of this performance, this guy definitely deserves a Best Supporting Actor or Actress nomination come Oscar Time.  I'm also glad that the movie did not feel it necessary to create any kind of romance between its heterosexual and transsexual leads, though Jared Leto definitely looks to be quite badly in love in one scene.

The problem though is that beyond these two stars, there really isn't much going on in this movie.  The first act is definitely the strongest, where McConaughey's character responds to his fatal news with typical redneck aplomb.  First he rejects the news entirely because "he aint no homo", and decides that the best medicine is prostitutes, alcohol, and streaks of white powder (it is the Eighties after all).  As the realization of his own mortality comes about, you even see this character finally break down and pray to God... in a strip club.  Director Jean-Marc Valee definitely has a strong fixation on the infinite masculinity of Ron Woodroof, throwing in some sex scenes and dirty vintage Eighties photographs on the walls of the Buyers Club.

But the movie starts to lose steam once the actual Buyers Club comes about.  The lead goes from a complete moron running from bad rodeo bets and punching his cop buddy, played by Steve Zahn**, to suddenly an international drug wizard, dressing up as a priest and making deals with Japanese businessmen, without much development.  I assumed more of this movie would have been about the antics of this Dallas Buyers Club, which was definitely a real lifeline for thousands of AIDS-infected men and women and probably saved many lives, but its also a very shoestring operation run by a hick and a transvestite out of a motel room.  These Buyers Clubs were actual things, mostly ignored by the legitimate medical industry out of their inability to stop AIDS and their general contempt for the homosexual community, and this dramatic element is ignored.  Instead the drama comes from a more complex and boring attack on the pharmaceutical industry, which feels suspiciously less about the AIDS epidemic and more about modern concerns about the rotten core of the healthcare industry.  I dunno... maybe I thought this movie would be more of a dark comedy.

The movie isn't even very subtle about its hatred for the pharmacy industry, to the point of inconsistency.  There are concerns that the experimental drug, Zidovudine (AZT), has been rushed out too quickly in order to make money, to the exclusion of other medical possibilities, such as Ron Woodroof's favorite, Peptide T.  So the AIDS sufferers demand that the FDA test experimental drugs faster, but also complain when AZT was tested too quickly and creates dangerous side effects.  And then when the movie presents so many concerns against AZT, turning its supporters into cartoonishly arrogant monsters, it has to admit at the very end that AZT was successful medicine that's currently used in the AIDS "cocktail" that has for decades been the best life saver and solution to the AIDS virus.  Less considered was that AIDS had only really been identified and properly understood for a few years in the late-Eighties, and it is a marvel of modern medicine that within just over a decade after its appearance in the United States, AIDS was largely under control and treatments for it allowed AIDS and HIV sufferers to live mostly complete lives.  There's definitely a libertarian argument that needs to be made which should allow people to use whatever medicine they want - at least not to the detriment of general public health - but it shouldn't be made with such mawkishness and didactic black and white lectures.

The pacing of "Dallas Buyers Club" is also curious, since at around two hours into the film, without really much warning, we suddenly just... end.  There's a small court hearing, a slow clap, and then end credits.  We never see Ron Woodroof die, only somebody who is not Matthew McConaughey riding a bull into the sunset, and then a few blank final notes telling us how the story ended.  Its very sudden, though it thankfully came at the very time I - and the editor transparently - had grown mostly tired of the movie.

So "Dallas Buyers Club" is an extremely imperfect movie.  There's a little too much of a lecture here that this tone didn't really need, when the film should have been more of a character study around Ron Woodroof directly.  Jennifer Garner is also here, but her presence is barely worth noting - but then again, when has Jennifer Garner ever been good anything?  The film is decently shot for the most part, nothing dazzling, but there at least two or three embarrassingly bad shots very crudely composting Matthew McConaughey into stock footage.  The two leads are extremely strong though, which is just enough I think to save the entire movie.  That its AIDS almost justifies how unsubtle the movie's message and politics are, so I guess I'll give this lukewarm recommendation.  Oscarbait is, like any established genre, rarely subtle, and there hits, misses, and the near-hits.  "Dallas Buyers Club" is a near-hit.

* Fun fact:  if you reverse the titles for those movies, you change nothing about their plots.

** Its a "Sahara" reunion!  You'd think after Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn lost the studios so many millions of dollars on that turkey they'd never let those men after stand in the same room together again.

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