Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features, R)

 

Dallas-Buyers-Club 75Many will think that Dallas Buyers Club is a rather funny film, but nearly all of its laugh lines are homophobic jokes; it seems to know no other mode of humor.

Dallas-Buyers-Club 500

A fair amount has been written lately about the type of Hollywood film that pretends to be about the empowerment of black people, but instead illustrates a flimsy case where a scrappy white person comes in and shows black people how to stand up for themselves (recent touchstones in this trend include The Help and 42). Though I’m sure they exist, the new Jean-Marc Vallée film Dallas Buyers Club operates on the same mechanic, except that instead of a scrappy white person showing black folks how to stand up for themselves, we have a scrappy straight man showing homosexuals how to stand up for themselves.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the true story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey, in what is already probably the most-lauded performance of his career), a Texan rodeo rider circa the mid-80s, who finds out he’s HIV-positive at a time when the disease is still assumed to only be an affliction of gay men. But old Ron is quite homophobic, which is illustrated emphatically through the way he acts, specifically his having sex with every female within arm’s reach, and the way he speaks, to include all those slurs you’ve hopefully gotten tired of hearing by now. Woodruff learns that there are drugs available outside of the U.S. that have proven effective in treating HIV-related illnesses and the various symptoms, but which drugs had not (yet) been approved by the FDA, so Ron sees the opportunity to prolong his own life and make a huge profit in the process off of the gay men that he loathes so much.

When Woodruff forms a shaky alliance with the cross-dressing Rayon (Jared Leto, also in what is already the most-lauded performance of his career), it appears that Woodruff might learn the error of his hateful ways. And while there’s one or two scenes devoted to showing Woodruff’s growing affection for Rayon, he never becomes tolerant, and really only uses Rayon to fleece all of his gay friends for the drugs they need to survive. What a hero we have here, folks!

For most of the film I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt — if Woodruff didn’t use hateful language, especially at first, both his character and the movie would ring false. But after a while it came into focus that the film itself is homophobic, and not just Woodruff — despite the fact that a big chunk of the characters in it are gay, they’re basically all portrayed as weak and/or junkies who, as mentioned before, need nice straight man to show them how to get things done. What’s more, many will think that Dallas Buyers Club is a rather funny film, but nearly all of its laugh lines are homophobic jokes; it seems to know no other mode of humor.

Meanwhile, though I know the movie is based on a true story, a lot of plot points stretch the limits of credibility. For example, Jennifer Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, a young, attractive, conveniently-unattached female doctor who treats Woodruff early in the film and is introduced as something of a love interest. How nice. Garner is good in the role, but seriously? In addition to being homophobic, Woodruff is also written as being sexist, and it’s hard to imagine an intelligent doctor putting up with his schtick any longer than they have to. Also, the character who gets the ball rolling on Woodruff going out of the country to get meds is a janitor at Dr. Saks’ hospital, who conveniently has connections to a doctor in Mexico with a seemingly-unlimited supply of these unapproved drugs. Why would the janitor, whom Woodruff randomly approaches in a bar, have this information? And how come in the film we see dozens and dozens of HIV-infected men, but only one HIV-infected woman? In the film’s runtime, Woodruff has sex with maybe five or so people, so he’s presumably responsible for many more than the one woman the film shows us.

Don’t get me wrong — by and large I love a good civil disobedience story, which at its heart Dallas Buyers Club is. The trio of McConaughey, Leto, and Garner are all very good, though part of me wonders if all the praise being heaped on McConaughey and Leto is more in reference to their being Christian-Bale-in-TheMachinist-level skinny, and less so about their actual performance itself. (Needless to say, all of the ladies still in love with McConaughey from his mainstream romantic comedies stage will not be so enthusiastic to see him with his shirt off this time around.) And really, I also don’t care that Woodruff never learns the errors of his ways regarding his homophobia; the real issue here is that the movie never learns this lesson, either. | Pete Timmermann

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