Can we talk about Jared Leto for a while? There’s a reason the internet likes to joke about Generation Catalano, referring to those neither-Gen X-nor-Millenial folks who identify with My So-Called Life, the excellent, short-lived TV show whose stars are now stars again. Claire Danes, now all angles and coolness, is on Homeland, while Leto, who played her crush, Jordan Catalano, is mostly a rock star. Every so often he turns up in a movie. Occasionally he walks away with the heart of a film, as is the case in Dallas Buyers Club, a good movie that might’ve been great.
The movie’s focus is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic leer of a man who, in 1985, was diagnosed with AIDS. Scary-thin and unsteady on his feet, Ron is clearly very ill, but he won’t believe the diagnosis at first; the 1980s were a different time, and he is perfectly happy believing that AIDS only happens to gay men. His doctors give him a month to live and tell him there are no drugs available. Ron, a scrapper and a fast talker, a man who is used to creating opportunities for himself, takes to the black market, eventually partnering with a doctor in Mexico to smuggle better drugs — drugs not yet approved by the unhelpful FDA — into the country. It’s illegal to sell them, so he creates a buyers club; membership provides all the meds a patient wants.
Ron’s turnaround from bigoted creep to self-serving crusader seems mostly fueled by self-preservation, but Jean-Marc Vallée’s movie (from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) is a little reluctant to admit this. They’re willing to show Ron’s ugly side, early on, but after his diagnosis, the movie starts skipping over large chunks of time, showing us a changed Ron who’s reinvented himself as an underground businessman, a more accepting soul who has no trouble partnering with Rayon (Leto), a transgender woman whose connections bring in good business.
McConaughey, gaunt and nearly unrecognizable, throws himself into his role with gusto and skill, but something is missing from his character as written. Though it has a talented ensemble cast (including Jennifer Garner as Ron’s sympathetic doctor, Eve), the movie rests on his thin shoulders, and if it’s a solid movie, it rarely transcends the feeling that you should be watching it, that it’s a story that should be told, rather than a particularly excellent bit of cinema. AIDS hasn’t gone away, and Ron Woodroof’s story is an important one. But as a movie, Dallas Buyers Club falls a little flat whenever Leto isn’t onscreen.
Rayon (emphasis on the second syllable) walks a delicate line between bravado and vulnerability, impish teasing (watch for the Marc Bolan pictures) and genuine fear. Leto’s performance feels translucent; where Ron is fueled by a peculiar sort of self-righteous anger, Rayon is full of desperation, hiding it in drugs and dramatic mascara. Leto slips into her skin without vanity, without presumption, balancing her scrappy confidence on skinny legs and flashing a quiet smile. Rayon is the way into this story’s core: Even though the narrative belongs to Ron, there’s a much larger story embedded too deeply in the film, and it’s about America’s failures in the fight against AIDS, not about one straight white guy who turned a terrible diagnosis into something valuable for others (and himself). A good movie studded with great performances, Dallas Buyers Club is a steady, mostly unsentimental period piece about a time not at all that long ago or far away. These are stories we should remember, even when imperfectly told.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Cinematography, Yves Bélanger. Editing, Vallée and Martin Pensa. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn and Denis O’Hare. Focus Features, 2013. R. 117 minutes. Three and a half stars.