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Matthew McConaughey enlivens the unremarkable ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

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Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club,
Mike D'Angelo

Three stars

Dallas Buyers Club Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Matthew McConaughey looks frighteningly gaunt in Dallas Buyers Club, but his performance as Ron Woodroof, an unconventional AIDS activist in the late 1980s, is more than just a weight-loss stunt. (He reportedly dropped 50 pounds, which seems outright dangerous given that he was in extremely good shape to begin with.) Without McConaughey’s live-wire energy, the film would just be a standard-issue triumphal biopic that sees a stubborn iconoclast stick it to The Man—in this case, to the Food and Drug Administration, which refused to approve potentially life-saving drugs for terminally ill patients. In the context of this actor’s mid-career Renaissance, however, it makes for yet another sterling showcase, as the Texas native gets an opportunity to take his twangy charisma to an unexpected destination.

Already rail-thin at the outset, before his diagnosis, Ron works as an electrician and whiles away his days betting on rodeo events, engaging in group sex (of the emphatically heterosexual variety) and making homophobic comments. After he collapses on the job one day, blood tests reveal that he’s HIV-positive, and his doctors—the more empathetic one played by Jennifer Garner—give him 30 days to live. Desperate, Ron first scores AZT from a hospital orderly, only to find that the drug does more harm than good. Genuinely effective medications can only be obtained overseas, and it’s as much greed as self-preservation that compels Ron to import a huge supply and sell it to fellow sufferers, assisted by a flamboyant transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto), with whom he gradually develops a tender bond.

Even if that last bit actually happened, the shift from Ron’s hateful remarks about “faggots” to a scene in which he attacks a former buddy who refuses to shake Rayon’s hand feels overly schematic. Other bits, like Ron dressing up as a priest to smuggle his drugs across the Mexican border, are way too cute—if the real Ron was able to pull that off, he can’t have been the guileless hick depicted here. But McConaughey’s dynamic performance carries Dallas Buyers Club through its rough spots, and it’s hard not to root for a guy who refused to accept a pronouncement of death. Director Jean-Marc Vallée kicks off a countdown (Day 1) immediately after the diagnosis; the number it finally reaches is inspiring.

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