Matt Nathanson, MBA Class of 2015
A film by Jean-Marc Vallée
For many Thanksgiving Time means possibly-overcooked turkey and forced small talk with your aunt’s sketchy new “friend” Maurice; for me, the few days respite the holiday provides allows me to engage in something I love but have barely had the time for since starting at Stern: going to the movies.
Besides a late-night foray to see GRAVITY 3D (which was more a theme park ride than a film; and a B minus at that), I’ve seen just about bupkiss since September—so last night, leftovers in my belly, I headed to the theater to get me some good ‘ol fashioned culture.
But the box office was…lackluster. I’m trying to go as long as I can in this review without massive offense to HUNGER GAMES fans. Suffice it to say there wasn’t many options, and though I sort of vaguely wanted to see DALLAS BUYERS CLUB in the way I vaguely want to see most “important” films (read: not really much at all, because I’m too lazy to feel things), I sort of approached it as a “this will do” option, a movie for lack of anything less terrible.
I will say that I was pleasantly surprised and entertained during the next 117 minutes of my life. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB follows the life and livelihood of real-life Ron Woodroof—AIDS-afflicted , heterosexual good ‘ol boy in 1980s Texas. Matthew McConaughey portrays Woodroof as he finds out he has HIV, and then negotiates his transition from cocky rodeo cowboy to humble freedom-fighter who protests for the human rights of the very same “fairies” and “fruits” that he had previously scorned.
As far as Hollywood bildungsroman, it’s by-the-numbers stuff. We get it, Matthew McConaughey. You’re super-homophobic, but you’re also the good guy, and you’re going to learn things, and we are going to tear up when you do. What saves this film from cookie-cutter tropism is the rigorous physical performances that allow McConaughey to be as physically repulsive as he’s ever appeared on camera, and puts Jared Leto in drag as a transgendered adult with a heart of gold (yawn). Not entirely novel stuff, but at least novelistic—the detail and depth of these characterizations lets you latch on for the ride.
Maybe I’ve been in Stern mode a bit too long, but the one strand of the movie I found absolutely fascinating was the portrait it painted of business opportunities in the early wake of the AIDS crisis. Hear me out.
As society faced this completely bizarre, redoubtable, horrific disease for the first time, there was a stutter-step in our response to curing it. Early trials of AZT testing—the greatest hope the FDA saw for treating it—were slow and cumbersome. The “gay” connotations associated with HIV, coupled with the bigotry and myopic of the 1980s, was a major hindrance to recognition of the severity of the plague and the suffering of those afflicted. Unable to wait for the fat-headed bureaucrats of the FDA to get their act together to approve and produce affordable treatment, many who tested HIV+ had to turn to a different kind of cowboy to address their health concerns—drug-runners who scoured the planet for unapproved (but not illegal!) medicines that could indeed slow the disease’s progress and mute the symptoms that AZT didn’t address at all.
This is a real thing. These “buyers clubs” did pop up worldwide (customers would, for sometimes quite-lofty membership fees, be given all the supplements they needed to address their health concerns—but, of course, survival was never guaranteed). The movie only tangentially considers the intriguing business opportunity component of these novel business models, which of course some see as predatory, and some see as salvation. Regardless of your take, it’s clear enough that Woodroof created value for people who needed help, and did so profitably—he’s able to travel the world and improve his lot by helping to improve the lot of others. While certainly Woodroof’s methods were unconventional and lacked the scientific rigor that the FDA applies to its approved drugs, the hundreds of people he helped would never accuse him of being some sort of charlatan. For them, it was money well spent.
In the process (and ultimately what DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is really about) we are given a window into the very-real disconnect between the molasses-crawl of healthcare reform and the outstripping pace of medical crisis. We see a businessman, an unlikely one at that, rise in this gap and provide a revolutionary service to customers in need. In a way, it’s nothing more or less than the great American corporate fairy tale.
I offer these insights not to be flippant but rather the opposite of that. In its best moments, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, like the unforgettable recent doc HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, offers the true-life, unromanticized realities of the early HIV crisis, rather than the AIDS-quilt wrapped feelgooderies of Hollywood past. Only a film as straight forward and simple as DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which fetishizes little in its sturdy narrative path, could achieve so much.
I will say, however, that Jennifer Garner was awful.