Friday, February 7, 2014

Buying Into "Dallas Buyers Club"

This is the last 2014 Best Picture nominee on the big fat list, which means that this is the first year I've managed to cover all of them, plus a few of the runners-ups. I'm glad that the Academy Awards are happening later this year, because there have been a lot of interesting contenders to catch up on. I'll definitely have a prediction/"If I picked the winners" post soon, but on to today's movie.

We're just starting to see narratives centered on the 1980s AIDS epidemic emerging in the popular culture, helped along by the recent advancement of LGBT rights. There were a handful of prominent documentaries last year that addressed this period, notably "How to Survive a Plague" and "We Were Here," and it's some very compelling stuff. "Dallas Buyers Club" is the first fictional dramatization that I can recall in recent memory, and approaches the subject from a very different angle.

Avoiding the LGBT rights struggle almost entirely, the focus here is on the very heterosexual Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rodeo worker who contracts AIDS in 1985 and is given a prognosis of only thirty days to live. There was no treatment for AIDS at the time, Woodroof manages to survive on illegally acquired AZT drugs, which were in clinical trials at the time. Unsatisfied with the way the FDA and the drug companies are handling matters, Woodroof starts importing unapproved drugs and treatments from outside the US, setting up a "buyers club" for AIDS patients in the Dallas area to get around existing drug laws. He recruits a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) to help him run the club, and wins the grudging support of one of the doctors conducting the AZT trials, Eve Saks (Jennier Garner).

"Dallas Buyers Club" takes some considerable dramatic license with the facts, demonizing the AZT drug and the FDA, and painting Woodroof's transition from a redneck homophobe to a more enlightened social crusader in simplified terms. Like most "man agains the system" social issue films, it depends very heavily on its performances. Fortunately the performances here are great. Matthew McConaughey's Woodroof is a stubborn pragmatist who is only interested in his own survival, and has a very simple and direct outlook on life. He starts the buyers club to make money and befriends Rayon and other AIDS patients for his own benefit. The fact that he's helping people doesn't really enter into the equation until very late. McConaughey spends much of the movie looking increasingly frail and anemic, but also unwaveringly vital, displaying the familiar McConaughey charm that it's hard not to be won over by.

Jared Leto's Rayon is arguably an even more difficult part, who could too easily have been another sassy drag queen caricature. Fortunately he walks a fine line between comic relief and tragic figure, and the script gives Rayon some big personal flaws and interesting angles for Leto to work with. Jennifer Garner is stuck with the straitlaced lady doctor who becomes Woodroof's platonic love interest. Like Rayon, her character is a composite of several real life people, but more obviously so because of the demands of the plot. She's one of the weaker elements in the film, but certainly not because of Garner's efforts.

Frankly, beyond the performances, I can't think of much to recommend "Dallas Buyers Club." The screenplay avoids most of the usual clichés, but it's pretty rote, and there are some glaring moments of forced profundity that don't land very well. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does a decent job, but doesn't manage to find many moments of real human drama that could elevate the film above the typical search-for-a-cure narrative. It isn't nearly as engrossing or as effective as the documentaries that cover the same subject matter, because the impact of Woodroof's efforts never really comes across all that well.

I can certainly understand the appeal of using Ron Woodroof's life as the anchor of the film. He's a very good entry point into the era, much easier for the general audience to identify with, and presents an interesting set of apparent self-contradictions. However, there's still a certain sense of squeamishness about the subject matter that seems to indicate we really haven't progressed much in the portrayal of homosexuality onscreen since "Philadelphia" twenty years ago. It's hard to ignore that there's only one major gay character in "Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon, and she's essentially a martyr figure.

I know I'm putting too many outsized expectations on a film that's really perfectly fine for what it is, and McConaghey and Leto deserve all the praise for their work that they've been getting. However, I can't help thinking that "Dallas Buyers Club" could have been so much better, and could have done so much more. And that makes it a very hard movie to root for.

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