"Dallas Buyers Club" is an example of how the sum of the parts of a movie can be greater than the whole. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto turn in Oscar-worthy performances, but their work gets lost in a script that drifts unchecked between a human drama and a political message.
The human side of the film, based on a true story, starts in 1985 where homophobic Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is living the good life of sex, drugs and more sex. This tough-as-nails bull rider isn't going to be slowed by something as annoying as a condom, which is like playing sexual Russian Roulette because of the growing AIDS epidemic.
His luck runs out and Woodroof faces death, partly because politicians are slow to allow the release of new medicines for those who are HIV positive. Wood-roof takes matters into his own hands and begins smuggling drugs used in other countries but not sanctioned in the U.S. He gets around being a drug dealer by establishing a club where patrons pay a fee to join. One of the member perks is free drugs.
The emotional turmoil the macho Woodroof faces is intensified through a meeting with Rayon (Leto), an HIV positive transsexual woman. "Dallas Buyers Club" is at its best when it concentrates on the two principal players.
McConaughey went through an incredible physical transformation to play the role, turning his normally healthy body into a skeleton of itself. Equally impressive is the vulnerability he brings to the performance. This is a character who finds life while facing death — done in such a real and touching way that it is the defining acting moment in McConaughey's career.
Leto matches every memorable moment in McConaughey's journey, taking his role beyond a two- dimensional stereotype to give his character an abyss of depth. Rayon goes from a beam of light in the ugly darkness of this horrible disease to a broken soul looking for just one bread crumb of compassion.
Leto's and McConaughey's work will initially be remembered for their physical transformations. But it's the work they do inside these brittle bodies that is the true strength.
The performances are so good that when the movie shifts to the political battles — shown through the efforts of an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) — it comes across as an infiltrator into the powerful emotional message.
Even with the weak political elements, the performances by McConaughey and Leto make "Dallas Buyers Club" a movie that embraces the idea that while AIDS is a global issue, for so many, it's very personal.
"Dallas Buyers Club," rated R for language, sexual situations, nudity, drug use. Stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Running time: 117 minutes. Grade: B
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.