Orthodox "Dallas Buyers Club" Anchored By Strong Performances

You’ve seen “Dallas Buyers Club” before. Regardless of how good its performances are (quite good), apart from how worthy its story is of being told (very worthy), it’s the classic David vs. Goliath underdog narrative repurposed as a socially conscious drama – one that’s just crying out for Oscar attention. It’s a weightier version of “Erin Brockovich,” but without the kind of bold artistic choices that the heaviness of the story suggests. That said, it’s rather good for what it is – a straightforward but well-acted documentation of one man’s fight against the FDA on behalf of AIDS patients everywhere, himself included.

Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s massive weight loss for his role here. In the late 90s and early 00s, stars like Tom Hanks and Christian Bale began turning cinematic weight loss into a selling point, a gimmick, and as a result, it doesn’t surprise us like it once did. Thusly, the weight loss of McConaughey and his co-star, Jared Leto, seems tired despite being inherent to the story.

Inspired by true events, the film is set in 1986. McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-living rodeo rider – and a virulent racist and homophobe. When Ron is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, he immediately goes into denial. He refuses to believe that he could have a disease associated with gay men, a fear only stoked by his friends’ homophobic taunts. Soon, he begrudgingly accents his nasty drug and alcohol regimen with AZT – the only FDA-approved drug for AIDS patients.

As his health spirals out of control, Ron’s stubbornness takes over – seemingly the first time it’s ever done him any good. He scours the black market for alternative medicine and finds luck in Mexico. Soon, he crosses paths with Rayon (an equally emaciated Jared Leto), a transgender AIDS victim, and they begin selling drugs out of a motel room. The two performances are equally memorable, but McConaughey is more in his comfort zone, southern drawl and gritty charm intact.

It’s Leto that really spreads his wings here. In his first role since 2009 – he left acting to focus on his band, 30 Seconds To Mars – he puts a frail, human face on the AIDS crisis, doing more than McConaughey with less screen time. Rayon isn’t nearly as charismatic as Ron, but the performance is more genuine and more surprising. Unfortunately, the screenplay betrays some of Leto’s work by sidestepping some of the horror that is AIDS – most of the character’s physical anguish presumably occurs offscreen.

Jennifer Garner supports as a doctor who serves as a conduit between Woodroof and the FDA, while the rest of the cast reliably fills out a variety of functional but genuine supporting characters. Director Jean-Marc Vallee does well in shuttling back and forth between people and places, often overlapping audio in an attempt to give the film an appropriately austere, indie vibe. But a handful of creative visual and audio cues don’t assuage the feeling that “Dallas Buyers Club” is content to play things safe.

The screenplay – by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack – is disappointingly one-dimensional, their words doing little more than setting the stage for McConaughey and Leto. Aside from these two characters, the script is a dearth of energy, moving sluggishly from point A to point B. Without its two stars realizing their characters so well, the film would be instantly forgotten by critics and audiences alike. And much of that blame would sit rightfully at the feet of its screenwriters.

But even though the narrative lacks propulsion – and it’s overlong, to boot – “Dallas Buyers Club” is a welcome acting showcase for two likable leads, both of whom are writing unlikely comeback stories of their own. These aren’t the best performances of the year, but they’re certainly worthy of recognition – as are the real people they’re portraying. And in that light, the film is a resounding success. Audiences that don’t fall victim to hype will find plenty to enjoy here.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 1, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenwriter: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughy, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use)