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‘Dallas Buyers Club’: Matthew McConaughey as a jerk you learn to love


Ron Woodroof Matthew McConaughey

Rayon Jared Leto

Dr. Eve Saks Jennifer Garner

Dr. Sevard Denis O’Hare

Focus Features presents a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Matthew McConaughey stirring Oscar buzz
Jared Leto loved 'role of a lifetime'
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Updated: December 9, 2013 9:47AM

Whether it’s Robert De Niro or Charlize Theron packing on the pounds (and winning Oscars) for “Raging Bull” and “Monster,” respectively, or Christian Bale appearing so emaciated in “The Machinist” you wondered if he had risked his health for his art, there’s something fascinating but also almost grotesque about actors who undergo radical physical transformations in the name of authenticity.

The first time we get a good look at Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club,” his face is so gaunt, his frame so skeletal, you wonder if it’s a trick of CGI — but it’s not. McConaughey shed some 40 pounds from his already slender frame to portray Ron Woodroof, a Texas cowboy who was diagnosed HIV-positive in the mid-1980s and became an unlikely crusader in the fight against AIDs (and against the FDA). He would be virtually unrecognizable, were it not for that signature drawl and smile.

Once we get past McConaughey’s stunning transformation, we’re transfixed by a performance that reminds us of why this guy became a movie star in the first place, before he nearly squandered his career on a series of mediocre duds. Now, with his mesmerizing supporting turn in “Mud” and a lead performance in which he hoists the story and carries it throughout “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey is a legitimate contender for TWO Oscar nods.

Based on true events and only occasionally succumbing to Hollywood schmaltz-ifying of the story, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” is set in Texas rodeo country. McConaughey’s Ron is a grimy, shady, homophobic, substance-abusing horndog — let’s face it, he’s pretty much a jagoff — who can’t believe it when doctors tell him a blood test has revealed he should already be dead, and at best he has 30 days to live. HIV? Ron will knock your teeth out if you even hint he’s one of those freaks like Rock Hudson.

An avowed womanizer, Ron continues to spew hateful, homophobic epithets (and continues to party) even after the diagnosis. He claims the hospital must have mixed up the blood tests, but the ringing in his ears, the fainting spells, the drastic weight loss, the constant coughing — Ron’s no fool. He knows he’s seriously ill.

Convinced AZT just makes you weaker, Ron taps into a level of intelligence he must have been denying most of his life, and delves deep into his trick bag of charm and deceit, to figure out ways to procure alternative, unapproved methods of treatment — and to make a profit. Inspired by a similar setup in New York, Ron founds the Dallas Buyers Club. He doesn’t charge those suffering from AIDS for the drugs, but he DOES charge a $400 monthly membership fee. For a time at least, that keeps Ron one step ahead of the FDA and the IRS.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s stylish, confident touch gives “Dallas Buyers Club” a gritty, indie look, plunging us into Ron’s nightmare as he stumbles about his trailer park home and in strip clubs, snorting coke and guzzling booze while slowly coming to grips with his fate. Every time Ron passes out, he awakens in a hospital, where one doctor (Denis O’Hare) is all too eager to indulge the pharmaceutical company pushing the new drug AZT, while Jennifer Garner’s empathetic Dr. Eve Saks has her doubts.

Jared Leto, also having shed an alarming amount of weight, disappears into the role of Rayon, a transgender drug addict who befriends Ron despite Ron’s initial repulsion reaction to Rayon’s flamboyant style.

We’re dealing with some clichéd characters here, from Rayon to Ron’s rodeo buddies, who literally push back their chairs in horror when a sickly Ron enters the bar, to the hippie-dippie former doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico who supplies Ron with vitamins, protein and anti-viral drugs that seem to be more effective than AZT. Yet thanks to the superb screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and the brilliant, brave performances by the cast, “Dallas Buyers Club” gets just about everything right, save for a few over-the-top scenes that hammer home points that have already been made. If Leto doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nod, I can’t wait to see the five performances better than his.

Mostly and always, though, this is McConaughey’s movie, and what a masterful job of portraying one of the more deeply flawed antiheroes in recent screen history. Ron’s got boatloads of charisma, but he’s mostly a jerk, an opportunist and a bigot — and it takes a long time for him to even partially shed those skins. Through his friendships with Rayon and the good doctor Eve, through his struggles against the profit-hungry drug companies and the sometimes unblinkingly obtuse FDA, Ron discovers a level of humanity within himself he never would have known existed had he not become deathly ill.

We start out loathing this guy and learn to love him.

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