Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

I think I’ve been looking forward to liking a movie with Matthew McConaughey. There’s no particular reason for it, other than the fact that we have the same last name (mine is spelled slightly differently) but I’ve always wanted to like him. Of course the problem is that, up until very, very, very recently, everything he’s done has been absolutely terrible. But as of late, that’s been changing a bit. Maybe Matthew realized he’s not going to be young and hot forever and should try actually acting, but he’s been appearing in more mature and difficult roles lately. And this has culminated in Dallas Buyer’s Club, a movie and a performance that all but guarantees that the star of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is going to be an Oscar Nominee.

The plot is about Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a womanizing drug addicted homophobe living in Dallas in the 80s, who contracts AIDS after a night with a heroin addicted woman. Given 30 days to live, he eventually finds himself in Mexico, seeking non-FDA approved treatments, as AZT, the only FDA approved treatment appeared to be killing him. When he improves he returns to the US and starts a Buyers Club, designed to work around the laws keeping him from selling this treatment to other AIDS patients with the help of a transgendered woman named Rayon (Jared Leto).

All of the ads for this movie are selling McConaughey’s performance as the main draw, and in that the movie certainly does not disappoint. The best moments are in the first half, between when Woodroof gets his diagnosis and when he begins getting treatment, as his performance is extremely raw during that period and all the more compelling for it. After that his performance becomes a little more conventional, along with the movie which shifts into a fairly straightforward ‘issue, fight the power’ movie at this point, but it’s still nice to see McConaughey, an actor I’d once dismissed as a one note pretty boy, disappearing into a role. The quite frankly more impressive performance comes from Leto, as his character has more problems and winds up with a lot of darker and more depressing sequences to sell, and he does an incredible job…that I can’t really tell you about as it’s full of spoilers. Oh and I guess Jennifer Garner’s in it, but that really should tell you all you need to know about her performance.

Of course the fact that McConaughey gets upstaged a lot by Leto might be because the director or screenwriter dropped the ball a bit. The issue is mostly in the editing, what we get shown vs. what we don’t. We end up seeing Ron at the beginning and end of a lot of his arcs but we see very little of the middle. Ron is homophobic at the beginning and he’s not at the end, but we see very little of the transformation in the middle. We don’t get to see Ron bond much with Rayon, which is depressing as their relationship is an interesting one.

This is par for the course in issues movies, and the film is overall a lot more interested in the battle over AZT as an AIDS treatment then it is in the relationships between the characters. The upside is that, this time around the sequences involving the ‘issue’ are a lot more entertaining than they usually are, as the film chooses to stage and shoot them in the vein of comedic hustling sequences, with Ron going around the world to find non-approved medications and supplements and talking his way around the feds. These scenes are fun and engaging, but it’s a shame that the relationships at the center have to suffer for it. Less fun is Jennifer Garner’s character; She’s saddled with playing the Sympathetic Doctor ™, who winds up Woodroof’s Unlikely Ally ™. This doesn’t need to be a bad thing, but the movie both over and under commits to her, letting her eat up way too much screen time but not giving her enough to have a proper character or arc. I also saw hints of her being the Love Interest ™, an aspect that should have been dropped entirely.

Other than that, there’s not a ton to say. The direction runs a little on the by-the-numbers side for my taste, but it’s competent and it commits fully to its time and setting with a nicely appropriate soundtrack and a washed out desert color palate. The screenplay is good, with each character having a unique voice and all of the character arcs that we get to see well thought out. The supporting cast all do their jobs admirably and it seems to have real empathy for the plight of the AIDS affected in the late 80s.

The end of the year means Oscar Season ™ is upon us, and character driven actor movies are swiftly becoming the norm (how long till the new Coen Brothes again?). Dallas Buyers Club is, unfortunately, on the low end of this November’s Oscar crop, and with both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity still hanging around theaters, I can’t say it anywhere near the best thing playing right now. But, taken on its own merits and not compared to those two, it’s a well executed, if occasionally flawed, issue movie and biopic centered around a pair of Oscar caliber performances. So if you’re in the mood for an actor movie this will easily scratch that itch.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he had to keep checking to make sure he wasn’t spelling Matthew’s last name like his own.

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