Dallas Buyers Club, the new, inspired by true events movie about the AIDS crisis, has basically the same plot outline as Schindler’s List. In Spielberg’s movie, Schindler, a gentile, takes advantage of an oppressed minority, Jews, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. In Dallas Buyers Club, virulently homophobic rodeo rider, hard living, electrician Ron Woodruff takes advantage of an oppressed minority, mainly homosexuals, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
And I’ve only just begun. In Schindler…, Ralph Feinnes plays a Nazi who runs a concentration camp that is responsible for the death of who knows how many Jews. In Dallas…, his counterpart is played by Dennis O’Hare, a doctor who runs a hospital that joins forces with the pharmaceutical company (the Nazis in this piece) that is responsible for the death of who knows how many people with AIDS because of the way medication is dispensed (with money the ultimate arbiter). Schindler’s right hand man is a Jewish accountant. Woodroof’s is a drag queen. And In Schindler…, the concentration camp commandant has a mistress, a Jewish woman caught between two worlds. In Dallas, it’s a female doctor caught between two worlds.
Okay, I’ve had my fun. I just couldn’t resist. And in the end, I think it’s safe to say that Dallas… hardly rises to the level of Schindler… But Dallas… does help shed light on a shameful moment in U.S. history where prejudice and homophobia, as well as pharmaceutical greed, determined how a plague was to be treated.
The film itself, with a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and direction by Jean-Marie Vallee (who gave us both the wonderful and emotionally rich semi-autobiogrpahical dysfunctional family drama of C.R.A.Z.Y. and the surprisingly effective, epic dysfunctional family drama of Young Victoria), is not as impressive as one would like. It’s a bit draggy (pardon the pun) in parts, with scenes of clunky, even embarrassing, dialog. And the movie often seems to do little but cover the basics and get the story told. Some of the characters, like the female doctor, played by Jennifer Lawrence, seem to have no reason to be in the movie at all and it shows in the performances (Lawrence has nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it; at one point, she claims to have been a friend to one of the main characters, but you have to take her word for it, because there’s little to indicate it in the screenplay here). And Vallee doesn’t’ do much as the director except get the job done.
But it does have two factors in its favor and they are the performances of Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, the drag queen.
I have to be honest. I have never been that impressed by McConaughey as an actor. He is perfectly fine in what he does, but I have just never responded to his thespian abilities the way others have. I’m perfectly willing to admit it’s me and we all have those actors who just don’t work for us the way we would like. But what I have admired about McConaughey is his brilliance in picking pitch perfect parts for himself as well as his incredible work ethic. He’s like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford on steroids—I may not be a great actor, damn it, but I’ll work so hard at it you won’t be able to tell the difference.
And Woodroof is perhaps the perfect McConaughey role, as perfect as Atticus Finch was for Gregory Peck. It feels a part written expressly for the actor and he goes at it tooth and nail, including losing so much weight he looks as skinny as a Hollywood starlet desperate to be hired. He may still be little more than good ol’ boy Matthew, but isn’t that exactly what you want for the role?
Jared Leto, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable and seems to just relax into his role, completely disappearing into it as if he was to the too plungy neckline born (a joke that will only make sense if you see the movie, and yes, Rayon, it is too plungy). His performance is made all the more poignant and deeply moving in the one scene where he doesn’t appear in drag, donning a business suit to seek help, as well as say goodbye, to his embarrassed father.
The film also refuses to stint in informing the audience how the pharmaceutical companies used the epidemic in order to make money off their medications, manipulating and controlling the FDA, and coercing doctors through medical studies to use their drug (here AZT) and to ignore all others. It’s an infuriating story that still needs to be screamed from the hospital tops. (To be even more infuriated, if that is your want, see the movie Fire in the Blood http://howardcasner.blogspot.com/2013/09/fire-in-blood-and-informant.html).
All in all, I can’t say that Dallas Buyers Club rises above what it is. But as hit and miss as it may be, it is a real eye opener and delivers enough of the goods to make it worthwhile.
All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie (I think there are some others involved here, but I’m not aware that anyone really cares that much about them), starts at the end. Redford delivers a voice over informing the audience that it’s over, that he’s gotten himself into a situation he can’t get out of and he’s sorry, but that’s just the way it is. The movie then goes back eight days to begin from the beginning.
So basically what we have here is a story in which all we do is wait an hour and a half to find out if a man lives or dies. And how you respond to the movie will probably depend on how interested you will be in what Redford’s character has to do to survive. For me, there’s not really much going on of great interest here. The boat that Redford’s character is using to sail in the middle of nowhere gets hit by a lost cargo bin full of tennis shoes and from then on out, it’s him against the elements. If you like that sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing you’ll like, but I didn’t find anything that original and fascinating about it all (well, there is one exception—I thought it incredibly clever how he makes water—no, I don’t mean urinates, I mean, actually desalinizes sea water) and after awhile I was desperately hoping a tiger might show up, whether it was all in the character’s head or not.
Redford has been praised for his performance here. This puzzles me a bit. For the most part, he’s just doing this and that to survive, showing no emotion or inner life at all. In other words, it’s a role that actually requires an actor not to act, which is actually so far so good and would seem to be a part that would be just the thing for him. But when Redford is actually required to display his art, to show emotion, to let the audience in on what is going on inside (like the moment he yells “fuck” in frustration at the universe), it was embarrassingly unconvincing and I cringed. In fact, this may be one of his weakest and least interesting performances of his career.
The screenplay and direction is by J.C. Chandor. He does little with either role as far as I can tell. He did much better with his previous film Margin Call, a chamber piece full of claustrophobic scenes filled with people trapped in offices. Here, where the background is the wide open seas with endless horizons, he can’t seem to really bring anything new and/or exciting to what then really ends up being just another routine entry in the man trying to survive against nature genre. And Chandor gets trapped by his ending. If Redford’s character survives, it really is just another run of the mill genre piece. If he doesn’t, then the movie has no reason for existence.
One thing that did come to mind here is the recent (to me mind boggling) critical approach to film that says that the movie that is the most visual with the least dialog is better than that other kind. But for me, this film is the proof that such a critical approach is no guarantee of a better film. All is Lost is visual, all right. In fact, that’s about all it is. One could even call it an exercise in minimalism. However, in the end all it really seems to prove is that less is not necessarily more.