Biopic bland despite strong performances

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff, a man who was behind one of the “buyers clubs” which arose in the late ’80s to provide medication for AIDS patients before they were approved by the FDA. Popular culture has apparently gained enough distance from the initial AIDS epidemic that our media has begun to explore it from a historical perspective, be it by looking at individual stories like this film does or by examining the larger context as last year’s documentary How to Survive a Plague did.

I cannot speak to this film’s historical accuracy—I am sure there are some who would dispute the story’s implication that the FDA was basically controlled by the pharmaceutical industry—but there is still something troubling about the fact that this film finds it necessary to recount an important moment in gay history from the perspective of Woodruff, a straight man.

Certainly, the film’s events are based on actual occurrences, but by focusing so much on Woodruff’s narrative, Dallas Buyers Club becomes a conventionally heartwarming biopic, despite hints of something more.

I can understand why director Jean-Marc Vallée felt compelled to feature Woodruff so heavily once the role was given to Matthew McConaughey. After spending years trapped in mediocre romantic comedies, McConaughey has had a remarkable career resurgence in the last few years, from 2011’s Bernie to Mud earlier this year, and his work here continues that trend. The first fifteen minutes of the film do everything they can to make Woodruff unlikable, depicting him as an angry, homophobic man who spends all his time gambling, taking drugs and sleeping with prostitutes.

It’s a remarkable gambit for a movie to try so hard to make its hero hateable, but it works here through the sheer force of McConaughey’s charisma, which always manages to keep Woodruff just within reach of audience sympathy. He lost quite a bit of weight for the role, but this Woodruff still has a well of inner strength, and all credit goes to McConaughey. I wouldn’t say his performance here quite tops his magnificent work in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, but it comes close.

Despite McConaughey’s performance, the first act of the movie is a bit of a slog. When Woodruff is first told by doctors that he has tested positive for HIV, he refuses to believe them. It’s a moment that communicates an important point, that most of the public at this time believed HIV could only be transmitted through gay sex, but it isn’t exactly dramatically compelling.

The plot picks up once Woodruff starts researching the disease and discovers that the drug administered by hospitals to AIDS patients, AZT, is just as likely to hurt them as help them. He begins taking a regimen of largely unapproved vitamins and supplements which are more helpful, and he discovers that his fellow patients are willing to pay for his plan, which kickstarts his business idea. Woodruff partners with Rayon, a transwoman he met in the hospital’s AIDS clinic, and the film’s main plot begins.

Rayon’s presence in the movie brings a much needed shift in tone to the proceedings. Where Woodruff is gruff and irritable, Rayon is upbeat and joyful, and Jared Leto gives a remarkable, soulful performance. Unfortunately, Rayon’s plot is largely irrelevant to the main narrative. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when Rayon has to plead with her disapproving father for money, but it could easily be cut without the movie losing anything in terms of plot coherency.

And if you are at all familiar with how Hollywood tends to treat its gay side characters, you can probably guess where Rayon’s story ends up. Suffice to say, she leads a difficult life, and things don’t often go her way. When tragedy strikes, the film frames that moment as a motivating incident in Woodruff’s life, rather than treating it with the respect Rayon deserves as a character. In fact, the entire film would certainly have been more engaging had it told its story from Rayon’s perspective.

I’m sure some viewers will see this film and not care about the sexual politics on display. By the standards of the historical biopic that seeks to both educate and inspire, it is generally successful. It’s certainly entertaining, and its explanation of the importance of buyers clubs to the gay rights movement is effective. Unfortunately, it does so in Hollywood’s typically boring fashion: a “normal” figure, in this case a straight white man, enters a world of outsiders, and becomes a hero to them.

The prevalence of that style of story in today’s movies is based on the assumption that audiences won’t be able to relate to a story if the main character is in any way different from the stock default protagonist. Beyond the fact that this assumption ignores massive chunks of potential audience, it is also insulting to the “default” audience it attempts to cater to.

Still, it’s a widely held belief by the people who make today’s movies, so we get films like Dallas Buyers Club which ostensibly are about gay history, but manage to feature numerous straight sex scenes without once exploring a gay relationship. In fact, the film’s treatment of women as a whole is fairly gross.

Beyond Rayon, all the female characters are either nameless sex objects for Woodruff to enjoy, or Jennifer Garner’s bland love-interest character. McConaughey and Leto are good enough to salvage some of the film’s weaker moments, but on the whole this is a disappointingly standard movie.

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