Matthew McConaughey plays a homophobe battling AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Credit: Anne Marie Fox
‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Director: Jean-Marc Vallee Stars: Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
A few years ago, Matthew McConaughey suddenly realized that his legacy was not as a master thespian, but as the star of dumb rom-coms whose posters typically had him leaning on his costars. Since then he’s switched to fulfilling his early potential, with swaggering turns in “Bernie,” “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe.” Indeed, you couldn’t craft a more Oscar-friendly performance than the lead in “Dallas Buyers Club” if you tried. Playing Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas racist homophobe who contracted AIDS in the early days of the crisis, it allows McConaughey to reform from bigotry, fight a disease, lose a ton of weight and self-righteously yell at unhelpful bureaucrats, Erin Brockovich style, all while rocking his charismatic McConaughey-ness.
Drawn to substance abuse and unprotected threesomes, Woodroof initially didn’t accept the diagnosis that he had 30 days to live. When he does, he gives it his all, soon skipping the much-touted (but potentially deadly) AZT for drugs from other countries that have yet to be approved by the slow and crooked FDA. To survive while turning a profit, he reluctantly joins up with a transgendered patient (Jared Leto) to sell his wares to other sufferers by exploiting some legal loopholes.
Even with the grim subject matter, this probably should have been a dark comedy — a stranger-than-fiction page-turner with an incorrigible lifeforce at the center. Woodroof’s actions may have saved lives, but he’s driven by purely selfish needs: to stay alive and make money doing so. The FDA may have been slow (and corrupt), but that doesn’t make Woodroof’s actions less reckless, especially as he was effectively using himself and his many, many clients as guinea pigs for sometimes for sometimes sketchy, undertested medicine.
To his credit, McConaughey doesn’t shy away from Woodroof’s dark sides. He’s overly driven and dangerous, prone to temper tantrums made of artless profanity. It’s a more nuanced performance than it may sometimes seem, especially once the film devolves into a tiresome parade of “showstoppers,” with Woodroof angrily confronting one FDA stooge or heartless doctor after another, throwing around the word “murderer” with wild abandon. To the filmmakers he’s a reckless hero who gets results — a gaunt Dirty Harry with a bad ‘stache who fights the FDA instead of punks. Only the downer ending, which never gives Woodroof a big moment of triumph, suggests it’s more than a reducing of heady times into a slobs versus snobs battle.