Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Dallas Buyers Club is entertaining enough for what it is–a standard Hollywood narrative about a guy who is a typical uncaring human until faced with a life challenge, which allows him to become a hero. In a film full of good acting and cliches, this is most profound cliche. Unfortunately, it’s not the only one.
This is based on a true story. There’s nothing that irritates me more in talking about film than people using this as something that makes it good. Who cares? Films based on true stories are awesome. Other films based on true stories are wretched. But people love a film based on a true story. In this case, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a bull-riding electrician who loves sex and drugs and comes down with HIV in 1985. He’s given a month to live but ends up surviving for seven years after becoming a drug activist bringing experimental treatments from around the world and selling them to others desperate for a cure. He’s an unrepentent homophobe but getting to know the gay people he’s selling to, especially Jared Leto as a transsexual, transforms him into someone we can love. Mostly the acting here is pretty good, particularly from both McConaughey and Leto. The time passes quickly enough without any particularly bad scenes. This is a fine movie that tramps in tired tropes.
Two really bothersome problems though. First, this is yet another movie that portrays people in a minority or disadvantaged group saved by the person of the majority. Usually this is racial–we get to know the Africans or the Japanese or the Native Americans through the eyes of the white man (Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai to take two of dozens I could name). Admittedly, this is a new wrinkle in this cliche but still. A movie that actually centered a drag queen couldn’t get funding. But a straight white man whose constant unprotected sex after drug-fueled binges led to him to acquire the virus, that’s a film!
Second, the portrayal of the medical personnel is ridiculous and also has serious implications for the present. While there’s no question that the FDA and entire Reagan Administration were criminally negligent in recognizing the disease and getting drugs to market, this film basically mirrors what Jenny McCarthy and her followers are saying about the medical establishment and autism caused by vaccinations. We have the inspired individual just looking for the truth, the evil head doctor who is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, the renegade doctor who gets converted to the right cause, etc. It’s not only all cliche (also what’s with Jennifer Garner not looking anything like someone in the 1980s? Not saying we need teased bangs on a doctor here but it’s like she took a time machine back from 2013–same clothes, hair, everything), but it’s also dangerous since the autism link is complete garbage. How many anti-vaccination activists have seen this movie and thought, “Just like autism!” Bah.
An entertaining film overall, despite these complaints. This is the kind of decent though ultimately meh entertainment that Hollywood can still do when it’s not making superhero movies aimed to open a new theme park ride.