Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

“Based on a true story.” The Toronto International Film Festival is full of these fact-based movies: Mandela, 12 Years a Slave (19th-century free black Solomon Northup), The Fifth Estate (Julian Assange), Rush (race car rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda), The Railway Man (Japanese torture camp survivor Eric Lomax) and Parkland (tracing the events at a Dallas hospital on Nov. 22, 1963). From the antebellum American South to modern South Africa, from World War II to WikiLeaks, from JFK to Formula 1, inspirational or just informational historical dramas are crowding the Toronto schedule this year.

Actually, this year and every year — because TIFF is a showcase for Oscar-wannabe films, and nothing appeals to the members of the Motion Picture Academy quite so much as a true story rouged into a stirring drama. Since 2000, bio-pics have accounted for 21 of the Best Picture nominees and two of the last three winners, The King’s Speech and Argo. The genre is even more generous to performers. Seven of the past 11 Best Actor awards, and eight Best Actresses, have gone to people playing real people. These winners have portrayed heads of state (Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, Colin Firth as King George VI, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin Dada), prime ministers and presidents (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln), novelists (Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote) and popular singers (Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles). It’s a hallowed Academy tradition: rewarding the famous for playing the famous.

So what’s so special about Ron Woodroof, the working-class Texan play by Matthew McConaughey in Jean-Marc Vallée’s grittily uplifting Dallas Buyers Club? He’s just a Texas electrician, a hard partier and drug user, a part-time rodeo rider and serial homophobe, who in 1985 learned he had contracted HIV (from sex with a drug-using woman). Told he had 30 days to live, and that AZT was the only drug that might stabilize his condition, Woodroof first paid a hospital employee to steal the stuff. Then, when one doctor warned him that “The only people AZT helps are the people selling it,” he researched treatments that the Food and Drug Administration had not yet approved. “Screw the FDA,” he tells the medical establishment, “I’m gonna be DOA.”

If anyone associated with Dallas Buyers Club is famous, it’s McConaughey, who lost way too much weight for the role. Vallée, on stage at the TIFF premiere, said “almost 50 pounds.” Thirty-eight is the official number, but either way, McConaughey wasn’t exactly a fatty to begin with. Actors, as we all know, are nuts; they’ll do anything for a role, including punishing their bodies. Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the older Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull, and Christian Bale dropped 62 pounds (from 182 to 120) for his lead in the 2004 The Machinist. McConaughey’s weight loss — in the film he looks even gaunter and more ghostly than photos of the real Ron Woodroof — follows those spectacular stunts and provides as rich an emotional and artistic payoff as De Niro’s.

This is a bold, drastic and utterly persuasive inhabiting of a doomed fighter by a performer who has graduated from the shirtless rom-com Romeo of the last decade to indie-film actor du jour. His turns as a more reckless Dallas dude in Killer Joe, as the strip-club showman in Magic Mike, as a Texas D.A. in Bernie and as the lovelorn outlaw in Mud have led up to this, the apogee of an adventurous career change. (Blessedly, in Dallas Buyers Club we never see the emaciated Matthew with his shirt off.) Most of these roles run subversive variations on the wastrel charmer he played in The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The salesman patter of his musical voice remains, but it is directed to darker, more toxic ends.

Any doubt that still exists in audiences’ minds as to Matthew McConaughey’s talents as an actor are permanently put to rest by “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which the 6-foot Texan star shed 38 pounds to play Ron Woodruff, the unlikely mastermind behind a scheme to circumvent the FDA by delivering unapproved treatments to AIDS patients during the late ’80s. But McConaughey’s is not the only performance of note in this riveting and surprisingly relatable true story, which co-stars Jared Leto as his transsexual accomplice. Rave reviews for both actors should draw mainstream auds to one of the year’s most vital and deserving indie efforts.

Nearly 20 years after launching his career as a hayseed hunk in “Dazed and Confused” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation,” McConaughey subverts that same macho image by playing a redneck bigot who becomes the unlikely savior to a generation of gay men frightened by a disease they don’t yet understand. Woodruff was straight — which the film makes abundantly clear in his undiminished pursuit of any woman who crosses his path — and reprehensibly homophobic to boot, but his newfound outcast status inspired a sense of empathy toward his HIV-positive peers that not only motivated his actions but also serves as this exceptionally well-handled pic’s most valuable takeaway.

Certainly, what makes the character so interesting is the way that a man so driven by selfishness could undergo such a reversal after his own life was threatened. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay wastes little time in getting to the diagnosis: After a workplace accident lands him in the hospital, Woodruff is told that he has HIV by a pair of doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) on the brink of implementing a new double-blind AZT trial among their patients at Dallas Mercy. Since best estimates give him only 30 days to live, Woodruff decides he can’t risk ending up in the placebo group and devises a way to scam some of the drug for himself.

After a second near-death experience south of the border, Woodruff realizes that AZT only makes his condition worse (especially when combined with his steady diet of cocaine, booze and methamphetamines), leading him to experiment with a cocktail of potential remedies not yet sanctioned by the FDA. If there’s a villain in the real-world version of this story, it’s the virus. For the sake of dramatic conflict, however, the film pits Woodruff against two of the biggest forces in American society — the government (represented by the FDA) and the corporate sector (“Big Pharma”) — positioning him as the rule-breaking Robin Hood who circumvents their profit-oriented practices in order to get effective treatments into the hands of people.

The character Matthew McConaughey plays in Dallas Buyers Club, one of the rightly trumpeted pictures in The Toronto Fim Festival, is a Texas rodeo cowboy called Ron Woodroof, whose lifestyle is the most alarmingly unhealthy we've seen on film since Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler. When he's not chain-smoking, downing Leaving Las Vegas quantities of bourbon, or interrupting group sex to snort a table-full of cocaine, he's shaking his body to pieces on the back of a bull. You'd be hard pressed to guess whether the steer or the rider smells worse. On top of everything else, he has Aids.

This is 1985, and a true story. "I ain't no faggot," Woodroof instantly declares on being diagnosed, though his boorish homophobia is actually relentless enough to raise an eyebrow. Unprotected sex with an infected, female drug user transmitted his HIV, which has been detected extremely late in the game – he's gaunt and zombie-like, his T-cells already at rock-bottom. Initially given just 30 days to live by his chief doctor (Denis O'Hare), he first enters a phase of vigorous denial, then one of panicked pleading, signing up to an experimental program of AZT-testing which wreaks havoc with his white blood cells. Everyone eyes him as a lost cause, when they're not throwing sissy taunts at him in a local bar – his rather elegant revenge on the ignorant hecklers is to spit in their faces.
All hope is seemingly lost, until Ron cottons on to the drug combinations not yet approved by the FDA. He buys himself more time than his doctors can quite believe – especially Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who already has grave doubts about the safety of AZT. She sneakingly admires Ron's resourcefulness, as he smuggles in shipments of pills and starts selling them to fellow patients on the black market.

His performance and the character he plays are the only standouts in this AIDS-themed man-against-the-system drama

In the same way that television wasn’t ready for a mini-series called “Holocaust” until the 1970s, it’s taken three decades for filmmakers to tackle the devastating early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with any kind of historical perspective. On the heels of the acclaimed and powerful documentaries “We Were Here” and the Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague,” we now get the docudrama “Dallas Buyers Club,” about one of many grassroots efforts to get non-FDA-approved drugs and supplements to terminally ill patients.

It’s been 20 years since “Philadelphia,” the last movie to feature a handsome, beloved movie star as a person with AIDS, and it doesn’t feel like mainstream cinema has gotten very far with the topic. If “Philadelphia” was the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” of AIDS, “Dallas Buyers Club” proves that, all this time later, we’re still on the first course.

The movie is another powerful showcase for Matthew McConaughey, whose winning streak of excellent performances continues unabated, but his character and the way he plays him far outshines the rest of the film, which feels more “truthy” than true, with plenty of convenient composite characters and cardboard bad guys.

McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a character who’s got nowhere to go but up from the film’s opening sequence, in which he has sex with a pair of floozies, unleashes a torrent of homophobic and racist insults, runs off with stolen betting money and punches his cop friend (played by Steve Zahn) in order to escape a mob of angry gamblers in police custody.

An accident at work sends Ron to the hospital, where blood tests indicate he’s HIV-positive and has almost no T-cells left. Doctors tell him he has 30 days to live, but Ron bribes a hospital janitor to steal AZT for him. That infamously toxic drug, which was for several years the only medication given to HIV/AIDS patients, nearly does him in, but an unlicensed MD (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico saves Ron with a regimen of unapproved medications, supplements and protein injections.

Realizing that terminal patients are starved for AZT alternatives, legal or not, Ron starts the Dallas Buyers Club; to avoid getting prosecuted for selling drugs, Ron gives them away — to the people who can afford the monthly membership dues. With the help of ailing drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto) and local doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner), Ron is able to offer new treatment possibilities to hundreds of clients, all under the watchful eye of the FDA.

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