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Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician who confronts Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) as he defies the medical industry in 1986 to seek alternative AIDS treatments, in "Dallas Buyers Club." Courtesy of Focus Features
Movie review: Performances raise the bar in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Review » Actors stand out in predictable AIDS drama.

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Nov 14 2013 03:00 pm • Last Updated Nov 14 2013 04:10 pm

If not for two astonishing performances, it would be easy to dismiss "Dallas Buyers Club" as a run-of-the-mill underdog tale that plucks at one’s heartstrings with the mechanical predictability of a cuckoo clock.

But those performances, by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, are worth seeking out.

At a glance

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‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto ennoble a by-the-numbers drama about Texas AIDS patients fighting for their lives.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday, Nov. 15.

Rating » R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.

Running time » 117 minutes.

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In this tale "inspired by true events," McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying, rodeo-loving, woman-chasing good-ol’-boy who works as an electrician for an oil-drilling firm. After an accident at work, Woodroof lands in the hospital, where doctors deliver some bad news: He is HIV-positive and will die from an AIDS-related illness within 30 days.

After brief bouts with denial, tinged with a nasty streak of homophobia, Woodroof decides to take action on his own. Hearing that Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Leary), who pronounced his death sentence, is among the first to test the experimental anti-AIDS drug AZT, Woodroof illegally acquires some and starts self-medicating, against the advice of Sevard’s kindly protégé, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner).

But when he goes to Mexico for more AZT, a defrocked American doctor (Griffin Dunne) advises him the stuff is poison in large doses. Instead, this doctor offers Woodroof a cocktail of supplements he says will prolong Woodroof’s life. Sure enough, 30 days pass and Woodroof seems in better shape than when he was first diagnosed.

Woodroof sees not only a cure, but a financial opportunity. Aided by an HIV-positive transsexual woman who calls herself Rayon (played by Leto), he sets up a business to provide these drug cocktails to Dallas’ AIDS patients. He calls it the Dallas Buyers Club, to dodge the FDA — the pitch being that he’s not selling drugs (which is illegal) but collecting dues for a club whose members receive the drugs for free.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee ("The Young Victoria") and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack take a lot of narrative shortcuts, such as setting up the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA as simplified straw-man villains. They also place Woodroof on a character track, from selfish jerk to saintly hero, that’s ploddingly similar to Oskar Schindler in "Schindler’s List."

McConaughey and Leto, who both lost weight to portray their AIDS-stricken characters, give powerful performances in the film. McConaughey deploys his Texas-sized charm to smooth over Woodroof’s more obnoxious traits as he turns his combative personality toward something worth fighting for. Leto, with wigs and lipstick and a killer attitude, turns the transsexual Rayon into a pillar of strength even as her body withers.

"Dallas Buyers Club" is predictably heart-warming, often slipping into forced sappiness. Thankfully, McConaughey and Leto are willing to labor to earn the audience’s tears honestly.

movies@sltrib.com


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