Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto sell a placebo of a film
Press screenings at film festivals can be tough crowds. We’re generally a jaded bunch, casually capable of sticking pins in high hopes and expectations with the mere drop of a snarky phrase. But every once in a while, a film comes along that spins us around (right round baby, right round), making believers out of us with all of the artifice fully on display. That takes quite an effort – make no mistake.
“Dallas Buyers Club” serves as the latest yellow brick on the road to career redemption for Matthew McConaughey. This gleaming golden path he’s constructing for himself is a complete 180 from the easy good-time road he spent so much of his time on. Remember the duds like “Sahara” and “The Newton Boys” or how about the silly rom-coms with Kate Hudson (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”), Jennifer Lopez (“The Wedding Planner”) and Jennifer Garner (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”)? I know, why am I wasting your time dredging up such toxic spills, since even in the dumps he always slipped in a shiny distraction (“Frailty” and “Lone Star”) to remind us that he had something else lurking within him – something good and true.
The new McConaughey narrative began in earnest in 2011, with the solidly gritty Michael Connelly adaptation “The Lincoln Lawyer,” followed by a supporting turn in “Bernie,” the William Friedkin helmed “Killer Joe,” the grounded Southern noir of “Mud” and a smarmy charm offensive in “Magic Mike” that felt like Denzel Washington’s twist on his usual righteous fire in “Training Day.” Suddenly, McConaughey knew the real value of his gifts and he wasn’t going to squander them anymore.
As the hard-living – and hard-loving – Ron Woodroof, a 1980s rodeo cowboy on the circuit hustling his life away until he gets diagnosed with HIV, which explodes into full-blown AIDS and a death sentence of 30 days without the proper meds, McConaughey rattles and races before our eyes. He’s little more than animated skin and bones, but it’s obvious that he’s not ready to go quietly into the night. Woodroof has a heart of gold and the sense to match, so when he settles upon a scheme to acquire the medication he needs, he understands that buying in bulk puts him in position to turn a buck. Before long though, the money doesn’t matter as much as the good he does for others.
Like Rayon (Jared Leto), his transgendered ER roommate who becomes his partner in the meds-buying-club scheme. Rayon challenges Woodroof, the staunch heterosexual homophobe who is unwilling to own up to the questionable lifestyle choices he’s made in his past. Rayon has no such qualms, living out loud with pride and style. There is no small bit of flamboyance in Rayon, but Leto never reduces the character to sass and tics. Instead he finds character in this character, much like McConaughey has done during his recent efforts.
During the lead-up to the Toronto International Film Festival press screening, all of the buzz centered on the McConaughey narrative, the great second act he’s crafting right before our eyes. But by the time the jaded press corps exited the theater, we had discovered the real story: that of another career-defining reboot-in-process, one that was even more startling because Leto had largely fallen off the radar. His stock was barely worth pennies on the dollar, but the turnaround here might shut the market down.
Even more astonishingly, McConaughey and Leto end up elevating a relatively pedestrian biopic. In lesser hands, “Dallas Buyers Club” from director Jean-Marc Vallée (“The Young Victoria”) would struggle to fill the small screen. But these two performers, working at the top of their games, will convince audiences to ante up big.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.