McConaughey, Leto transform themselves in 'Dallas Buyers Club' ★★★

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips reviews "Thor: The Dark World," gives you his 3 to see, and answers your Twitter questions. (Posted on: November 7, 2013)

In "Dallas Buyers Club," we meet Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof mid-coitus. He's making love with two women in a rodeo holding pen, seconds before he jumps onto a wild bull for thrills and the promise of a few bucks. The year is 1985, the same year Rock Hudson died of AIDS-related causes. By contrast Woodroof, a drug-using heterosexual, is just another good ol' boy with a dangerous edge and zero sense of personal frailty, as quick with a casual homophobic slur as with a come-on to the ladies.

How Woodroof became his own brand of AIDS activist is the stuff of "Dallas Buyers Club," which does a few things wrong but a lot right, starting right at the top with McConaughey.

For a long time Texas native McConaughey got by on looks, charm and some talent, which is one more asset than a lot of movie stars bring to the party. Then, year by year and with a quiet vengeance in the last four or five years, McConaughey began seeing the light at the end of his conventional-leading-man tunnel and grew exponentially more interesting as an actor. Today he's one of the most reliably vital of screen performers, and he's riveting as Woodroof, who scrambled to stay alive after being given a one-month death sentence by his doctors.

What he did with his seven extra years was this: Woodroof, an electrician by trade, created an underground pharmaceuticals way-station for his fellow HIV and AIDS survivors. He charged a monthly membership fee to thousands, offering a variety of non-F.D.A.-approved medicines. Other so-called buyers clubs sprang up in the U.S., but the Dallas club was considered to be the nerviest, since Woodroof smuggled a lot of the drugs and dietary supplements across the Mexican/American border, or from overseas. "A foul-mouthed outlaw who is as wiry as an ocotillo," journalist Bill Minutaglio described him in the 1992 magazine article that inspired the movie.

McConaughey lost 50 pounds to play Woodroof at his sickliest, and his co-star Jared Leto lost 30 for the role of the transgender character Rayon, who becomes Woodroof's unlikely business associate and the movie's secret weapon. Leto's heartbreaking and often wickedly funny, although the part is more like a shipment of standard-issue pathos than a flesh-and-blood creation. Jennifer Garner works well and earnestly as Dr. Saks, the immunologist representing the face of the slow-responding medical establishment in the first half of the film, and a renegade heroine in the second.

Woodroof suspects that steady doses of the experimental drug AZT are doing him more harm than good, and at a time when a sluggish (and arguably hostile) Reagan administration did little to help anybody in Woodroof's condition, he took the bull by the horns and rode it longer than anyone predicted. "Dallas Buyers Club" carries a full and honest load of inspiration in its story. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack follows the familiar Issue Biopic contours. Vallee's decision to shoot "Dallas Buyers Club" with faux-documentary hand-held cameras (in generic parts of New Orleans instead of on location in Dallas) renders the result not ineffective, but stylistically routine. A lot of it goes as you'd expect. But McConaughey is first-rate throughout, on top of every dramatic and blackly comic situation, even when the character isn't on top of anything.

He and Leto may well find themselves with Oscar nominations come the new year. The film is pretty good; they are very good. You needn't have attended a lot of AIDS-related funerals in the late '80s to find the movie affecting.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Dallas Buyers Club" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity, and drug use)

Running time: 1:57

Opens: Friday

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