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"DALLAS BUYERS CLUB"
(2013) (Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A heterosexual man must contend with contracting HIV in the 1980s and efforts to stop him from distributing illegal but potentially life-saving drugs to other victims.
PLOT:
It's the 1980s and Ron Woodroof (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY) is a Dallas electrician who moonlights as a rodeo cowboy. He's into partying with his friend T.J. (KEVIN RANKIN), engaging in casual sex with various women, and occasionally getting into trouble with local cop Tucker (STEVE ZAHN). He certainly doesn't think much about HIV or AIDS beyond making a homophobic comment about the passing of movie actor Rock Hudson from that. That is, until he suddenly takes ill and is informed by Dr. Sevard (DENIS O'HARE) and Dr. Eve Saks (JENNIFER GARNER) that he's HIV positive.

Ron refuses to believe that, but considering the thirty days he's been given to live, he quickly educates himself about the disease and its potential forms of treatment. The one drug that seems most promising, AZT, however, is only available in a blind trial and Eve informs Ron she can't help him get into that. Desperate, he bribes a hospital orderly to get him that experimental drug. When that's cut off, he heads to Mexico where disgraced American physician Dr. Vass (GRIFFIN DUNNE) is practicing and stabilizes him.

Realizing there's a potential windfall in bringing non FDA approved drugs over the border and selling them to those in need, Ron does just that and employs transsexual Rayon (JARED LETO) -- who he met earlier while both were seeking treatment -- to help him get clients. That doesn't sit well with FDA official Richard Barkley (MICHAEL O'NEILL) who does his best to shut Ron down, all while Ron's lawyer, David Wayne (DALLAS ROBERTS), does what he can to keep Ron's operation running.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
While the battle of the bulge -- no, not the famous WWII battle but the constant struggle for many people to lose weight -- has been going on forever, it seems as if it's really escalated in the past decade or so. Accordingly, there's always a new diet that promises to shed the pounds, while exercise programs designed to do the same are never in short supply. What isn't overly abundant, however, is the right sort of motivation to stick with eating right and exercising enough to pull off the feat.

That said, if everyone had the chance to -- Oh, I don't know -- win an Oscar for dramatic weight loss, perhaps our world would be a more fit place. Alas, they only hand out four of those for performances each year (weight loss or not), so the odds of getting one are fairly nil. And, of course, there's that little nagging extra requirement of actually being able to act.

Despite those long odds, it seems every few years you hear about a performer -- nearly always a man -- who's lost a dramatic and sometimes shocking amount of weight for some movie role. Most people remember Tom Hanks' transformation in both "Philadelphia" and "Cast Away" (in the second he gained and then lost a lot for the role) -- both of which earned him Oscar wins -- but few saw Christian Bale's far scarier looking 60-some pound lost for his role in "The Machinist."

As is oft the case with playing real-life historical figures, such physical transformations are sometimes viewed as so-called Oscar bait. That will likely be the case regarding actor Matthew McConaughey and his reportedly near 50 pound weight loss to play Ron Woodroof in "Dallas Buyers Club." Woodruff was also a real person, but unless you were heavily vested in the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in 1980s America, it's not likely you ever heard of this highly unlikely crusader for giving such victims access to potentially life-saving drugs.

The Dallas electrician and part-time rodeo performer - as portrayed by McConaughey -- was no saint, however, as he was mainly looking out for himself -- not only for having contracted the disease himself, but also seeing how he might parlay getting said medication to the victims as a potential business windfall. The opening moments of the film -- as penned by scribes Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack -- give us a good indication of what sort of man he is.

Following a three-way heterosexual encounter in a rodeo paddock with two women, Woodruff makes a homophobic and uncaring remark about the news of actor Rock Hudson's death from the disease. After a fainting spell, he learns from two doctors -- including the junior one played by Jennifer Garner -- that he has HIV. He reacts with an angry and once-again homophobic denial about not being gay, but the die has been cast and he's given around a month to live. And to make matters worse, his fellow homophobic buddies have turned against him.

With time running out, he goes into research mode and learns of an experimental drug that could save his life. Unfortunately, the doctors' hands are tied regarding distributing it, so he goes to Mexico where a disgraced American doctor (Griffin Dunne) not only extends his life expectancy a bit, but also agrees to use Woodward as a middle man of sorts to get better treatment to those back across the border. Needing an "in" into the gay community, Ron turns to a transsexual (Jared Leto) to get him the clients needed to make his new business viable through the titular distribution entity he creates in an attempt to skirt the real and implied rules.

Not surprisingly, that doesn't sit well with most of the American doctors (including Garner's boss played by Denis O'Hare) or the FDA (personified by Michael O'Neill) who attempts to shut him down. What follows is sort of a HIV-themed version of "Erin Brockovich" where the unlikely hero ends up taking on the establishment in the form of the medical field, the Feds and Big Pharmaceutical.

Despite being one of the few films where he doesn't remove his shirt, McConaughey is terrific in the role playing a guy who sees the light, but doesn't completely change his ways in some sort of unrealistic transformation. Some of the actor's charming aura is still there, but that plays perfectly for the sort of guy he's portraying. Coupled with the various obstacles he must face, it's clearly an Oscar worthy performance. The same holds true for Leto (who does remove his shirt to showcase his character's similar ultra-skinniness) who's a lock for a supporting actor nomination playing the troubled transsexual.

As directed by Jean-Marc Vallée ("The Young Victoria"), the pic has the look and feel of a 1970s era message film, and effortlessly pulls the viewer into the protagonist's life, plight and battle against forces far bigger and better financed than him. All of which means most viewers will eventually forget they're watching a visual example of extreme weight loss as they get caught up in his journey, warts and all. "Dallas Buyers Club" rates as 7 out of 10.




Reviewed September 25, 2013 / Posted November 8, 2013


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