Thursday, January 23, 2014

TRUE GRIT KEEPS ‘DALLAS BUYERS CLUB’ ABOVE ITS MISSTEPS

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club."
These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

It could have descended into a Hollywood stunt. Certainly the entertainment tabloids almost put it there. Only in the past few years, they breathlessly write, has Matthew McConaughey been treated as an actor.  Before then he was most famous for taking off his shirt onscreen to show how buff he was.

But now how brave that he dropped 50 pounds and is making waves and winning acting awards as a  gauntly beautiful rodeo boozer, gambler and womanizer, the natural leader to his gay bashing friends in rowdy Texas partying.  And then his character, Ron Woodruff, is staggered that unprotected sex has made him an AIDS victim with only a month to live according to the hospital expert in this new medical field, cavalierly advising him in 1985.

That is the premise – and those are often the media headlines used to sell “Dallas Buyers Club” – and that’s just the start.  Jared Leto, the musician and TV series heartthrob, dropped 30 pounds (!) to mince about as the drug-addled transgender who befriends the cowboy despite Woodruff’s toxic attitude toward “faggots” as he calls them.  Yet as Rayon, Leto not only becomes the cowboy’s business partner but also his friend and surrogate naughty child.

Yup, it sure could have been a stunt. It isn’t helped that the makers can’t resist some typical Hollywood twists to the storytelling.  There is that mandatory attractive and sympathetic female doctor, played straight in a lost cause by Jennifer Garner. There is a finale rodeo resolution to make us feel good.  There is some unneeded heartstring tugging in what is actually a legitimately emotional story if only they’d just let it flow.

But a couple of things keep “Dallas Buyers Club” in the top ranks of movies this season.  First, both McConaughey and Leto have far more acting chops than tabloid-thrilling weight loss. Both are subtle and explosive, and McConaughey in particular is a coiled dynamo that rivets the eyes. What they communicate is the ferocity of the dismissed and abandoned  – the desire to live, to beat society’s rules and expectations as AIDS devastated the nonconformist communities in the 1980s.

The other thing the movie does unveil is the agony too long hidden in media coverage – the same sort of tabloid misdirection as demonstrated in the weight loss hoopla.  It is past  time to  remember -- and I speak as someone turned back by the establishment in pressuring to cover  the human pain, family tragedies and actual truth of AIDS victims and the underground help they had been forced to turn to out of social fear in the 1980s.

Even beyond that, few in power wanted to admit that the underground help, wrapped in so-called low-lifes, often did more good with more compassion than the system.  And no one wanted to face up to the measures anyone would take when confronted with a death sentence by an illness few understood.

McCounaughey’s character is based on an actual AIDS victim turned hustler for survival and activist for the sufferers. Ron Woodruff was indeed a partying animal and gay basher, though not as wild as the movie depicts. What did open his eyes a little was when his homophobic friends turned their backs on him for fear of contamination. What really opened his eyes was determination to live. Even to learn if he had to. He early realized that heavy-dose AZT approved by the FDA was destroying him, so he began smuggling illegal pills and better advice from Mexico to aid himself and other victims and then made money forming a buyers’ club where members paid to get all the new dosages he had uncovered.

It’s a temptation with some truth that the film falls into -- to paint the government as the villains and the hustlers as the heroes.  But this was a confusing era where no one had it right and society did seem to impose bullying rules about who lived and died. The film successfully conveys that, with enough resonance and fever in the story and acting to carry the audience along.

Hollywood shouldn’t be honored for finally confronting the early days of AIDS head-on, but doing so does seem to translate at awards time into extra credit for moral courage. It really should be a reminder of the courage society long lacked.

The ferocity to live, to trick and lie if needed, to scream and curse if called for, drives the screen.  Undoubtedly left on the  cutting room floor are the excess moments the cast trotted out to reach those wrenching human chords. But audiences can only judge what is left on the screen, and here McConaughey  is remarkably vivid and unstinting, from emotional uppers to desperate physical collapses, from smooth cons and violent profanity to increasing muscular feebleness.

Leto actually provides the transitional key.  Rayon (a totally invented character by the way)  bridges our understanding of  how Woodruff could remain the same Texas conman  but rise in determination to help all victims.  Leto’s  transgender role opens up a vulnerability and humanity the story needs.

Yet even here, “Dallas Buyers Club” can’t escape missteps of inflating the emotional codas surrounding death.  It was almost as if  respected director Jean-Marc Vallee – or the tons of executive producers, producers and advisers shaping this film – never quite trusted the audience or the actors.  But they should have.  It’s the difference between a needed contemporary drama  and a great movie.


The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler" and “Nebraska.”  Check them out and add your comments.