By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
“Well, that was uplifting.” Thus spake disparagingly a woman who looked like Sarah Silverman in about twenty years as she exited from a showing of “Dallas Buyers Club.” The picture stars Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS victim, circa 1985, who finesses an entrepreneurial way to battle the affliction. Too bad she and her moviegoing contingent didn’t wait to read my review. I might have saved them a buck.
The arrogant me, thankfully programmed for good boy mode, resisted running up to her and yelling, “Well, what’d you expect? Didn’t you at least read a synopsis, let alone a critique?”
If she had, rather than just traipsing into any old movie house and seeing whatever film happened to be showing, the elder Mrs. Silverman would have known that director Jean-Marc Valée’s filmic adaptation based on a true story is a serious and edgy docudrama. While obviously not our Sarah’s idea of uplifting, in its own context it is a heartening delve into the human condition. Alas, only a few yards away in each direction at the multiplex numerous comedies were just waiting to elevate our disgruntled patron of the arts. Better luck next time, ma’am, but here’s what you missed.
Striving for his first Oscar aided and abetted by a staggering, fifty-pound weight loss to give him that Stanislavski look and feel, Mr. McConaughey is stellar as Ron Woodroof, electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy. Hard-living, devil-may-care, homophobic and the poster fool for unprotected sex, his lifestyle inevitably lands him in the hospital and provides for a rude awakening. Says the doc, ‘You’ve got thirty days.’
At first in complete denial, his smarts and common sense heretofore clouded by Bacchanalian imprudence soon spool-up for a last ditch attempt at survival. He proves quite a resourceful dude, and we can imagine a 2nd grade teacher lamentingly telling his parents, “If only Ronnie would apply himself.”
He quickly learns that AZT is being touted as the panacea. But that means getting into a trial at the hospital, and being lucky enough to avoid the placebo group. He goes the black market route.
So welcome to the world of modern medicine: sometimes well-intentioned, misconceived, brilliant, humanitarian, profit-motivated, charitable, greedy, and currently hamstrung by its unholy alliance with Big Pharma and anyone with enough money to open a health insurance company. Taking a crash course in the shameful morass, Ron becomes an Alice in Quackery Land as he researches with the indefatigable zeal of an Edison.
Be apprised, I’m always flabbergasted when someone opines that, of course, there is a cure for cancer, just as there is a motor that runs on water. Yeah, they killed the inventors and are keeping it a secret so as to prolong the Golden Goose’s life. Folks prefer almost anything to the horrible truth.
Fact is, as “Pogo” cartoonist Walt Kelly so keenly observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Indeed, it is the conflicting goals of humans and societies that prevent us from the altruism we fantasize would make Nirvana possible.
People, both naughty and nice, in attempting to get by, don’t always do it with the sort of panache that might make their mothers proud. All of which sets the stage — whether on the medical front, politics, etc. — for the perennial battle between the forces of good and evil.
Bear in mind, 25 years since Ron’s travail, we still live in a country where no discernible majority believes health care is a right. Yep, many favor the EMH (Every Man for Himself) solution.
Of course it’s not all black and white, and so, with the clock ticking, Ron must navigate through the gray area that surrounds this latest commercial opportunity born of crisis and human suffering. Next stop, Mexico, where Dr. Vas (Griffin Dunne) — well, he was a doctor — has developed his own protocol. Neither the medical establishment nor the FDA is going to like this.
Telling you any more of the plot would ruin the atmospherically recollective landscape and how it intertwines with the discoveries Ron makes whilst struggling for his life. Suffice it to note, while still not forsaking his trashy behavior and bigoted beliefs, he does experience an epiphany or two. Particularly fascinating is his unlikely business partnership/friendship with Rayon, Jared Leto’s nomination-worthy gay transvestite.
The result is a moving and historically educative experience. Despite what one might personally think about Woodroof, we must heartily cheer this determined explorer. Awash in the dark seas of ignorance that prevailed as the AIDS epidemic first reared its ugly, perplexing horrors, he fights the good fight.
Therefore, begging to differ with the older Mrs. Silverman, it’s precisely this sort of unconventional ode to the human spirit that makes “Dallas Buyers Club” a smart and, yes, uplifting movie purchase.
“Dallas Buyers Club,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Jean-Marc Valée and stars Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Running time: 117 minutes