Since Matthew McConaughey jumped the mainstream track and took on challenging roles in unconventional fare starting with Killer Joe and Bernie in 2011 followed by Mud and Magic Mike in 2012, the actor’s skills and ambition have been building toward his playing AIDS patient/activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s a career-defining performance and, if he doesn’t get his Oscar nomination for it, he never will. The rest of Dallas Buyers Club, though, is a more pedestrian run-through of honorable themes in material that feels like its been over-workshopped in screenwriting labs.
A regular at local rodeos, Woodroof is also known for his womanizing, gambling and all-around partying ways when he isn’t working his day job as an electrician and trash-talking fags. Then, after being taken to a hospital following an on-the-job accident, Woodroof finds out he’s got AIDS, and, by all measures, he should be dead. This is all happening in the midst of the ’80s AIDS scare, when it was still deemed a gay disease. Woodroof hits the local library and reads a whole bunch of articles and reflects on all the risky sex he’s had. That all throws on the lightbulb in his head. We can see him face palming himself in our minds.
Meanwhile, there are two doctors in the movie: One good and one bad. The good one is Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner who lulls us with her on-par adorability, who becomes mother hen to dying patients taking part in the hospital’s AZT trials and eventually Woodroof’s confidante and cheerleader. The bad one is Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), the tool for the pharmaceuticals eager to push AZT onto the AIDS-stricken. These characters are painted in such broad, black-and-white strokes that labeling their purpose in the story pretty much sums up their breadth and depth. Every character in Dallas Buyers Club can be thus condensed: Tucker, Woodroof’s cop friend, is the hard-ass cop with a heart of gold; T.j., Woodroof’s drinking buddy and wing man; and so on. Then you’ve got Jared Leto putting on dress and make-up and doing his damnedest for his own Oscar nomination as troubled transvestite Rayon, who forms an unlikely business partnership with Woodroof. Of all the movie’s performances, his is the weakest, the most egregious plea for awards attention.
Speaking of business, it’s what the movie boils down to: Woodroof’s scammy attempt to start up a club in which he can supply members with alternative meds and vitamins, stuff that the FDA either hasn’t approved or can’t profit from. So, the movie is also a critique of the profit motive of the pharmaceutical business, personified in the cliche of the hard-ass drug enforcement agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill). Yes, it’s as tiresome as that. And how Woodroof goes about running this underground operation evokes elements of Catch Me if You Can as he jet-sets and cons whoever he has to to get the drugs he needs–for no reason other than to make him an appealingly gonzo character.
There’s nothing terribly bad about Dallas Buyers Club. It is exactly what the ads tell you it is. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s for upscale moviegoers who’re after something substantial and “important,” but then realize that what they sat through was a lumbering, shallow TV Movie of the Week. And this is as good a time as any to mention that I’ve never been a fan of McConaughey. He’s obvious, heavy-handed and seems to revel in his obnoxious Texan twang (put so far to its only good use in the actor’s first role in Dazed and Confused) with its irritatingly enunciated “S’s”. Every smile, glance and audible exhalation is telegraphed as if to communicate to us that he’s an actor up on the screen playing a role, in case you were wondering. He’s well-meaning, sure, but he’s not a persuasive actor in anything in which I’ve seen him.
The best thing I can say for McConaughey as Woodroof is that he most successfully disappears into the role. He evokes emotional shades and employs silences, a sense of humility in the character that I’d till now not seen. The sheer awfulness of everything else in the film can be blamed on Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s paint-by-numbers script, which really wants to create a noble picture of its subject but lacks the subtlety and imagination to do so, and on Jean-Marc Vallée’s infuriatingly bland direction, which has all the inquisitive power of a children’s board book.
When I first saw Dallas Buyers Club, I thought, “OK, that was relatively interesting and harmless.” But the more I’ve reflected on it, the more its crimes became nakedly obvious. Using the controversial and difficult nature of its subject matter as a facade for what is just half-baked product, it is everything cheap, shallow and pandering about American independent cinema.
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne