In his blistering, deeply moving Grantland essay about 12 Years A Slave, Wesley Morris lays waste to decades of white-guilt piety in films about racism and slavery—A Time To Kill, Cry Freedom, Glory—in a single sentence: "They've been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet's history." (This section of Morris's essay, one of the best pieces of film writing I've ever read, is only one of Morris's minor points.) I'm reminded of Variety's amusing review of the dumb Rob Reiner drama Ghosts of Mississippi: "When future generations turn to this era's movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they'll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys.”
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that we have evolved into the next phase of establishment guilt: the straight-guy-standing-up-for-gay-guys movie. We first saw this in Philadelphia 20 years ago, which was so scared of being labeled a "gay" movie that not only did it not allow its main couple to kiss, it made sure that its main character was a rock-solid straight dude who was actually pretty freaked out by the gays. (Real line of dialogue from the film, when Denzel Washington is interrogating Tom Hanks in the courtroom: "Are you a homo? Are you a queer? Are you a faggot? Are you a fruit? Are you gay, sir?" He also earlier admits "some of these people make me sick ... but a law's been broken here!") One would think, by now, we'd be over this, and I suppose we essentially are. But when a major movie star is going for an Oscar, all bets are off.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a Texas electrician, womanizer, and drug addict who ended up contracting AIDS. After being told he had just six months to live, he heads to Mexico for alternative AIDS drugs; he ends up bringing them back to Texas and selling them to AIDS victims stifled by the Food and Drug Administration's dragging their feet on their approval of usage. He starts the Dallas Buyers Club of the title—there were several Buyers Clubs across the country having the same problems with the FDA—and turns himself into an entrepreneur and extends his life by several years.
This is a somewhat interesting story, I guess, though it's basically the story of every single person who started every single Buyers Club around the country at the time. The difference, of course, is that Ron Woodruff was a straight guy, and thus he can be played by Matthew McConaughey in full-on Wooderson mode. McConaughey is charming and funny and giving it is Texas all; he lost a ton of weight for the role, but it's still all McConaughey, the lovable weasel you can't help but be won over by. Except this time McConaughey is going for an Oscar, so he's skinny and cries occasionally.
The story of the Buyers Clubs—and, more specifically, the endless fight to get the FDA and the Reagan administration to understand the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic—has been told before, perhaps most memorably in last year's How To Survive A Plague. That movie, directed by a journalist who had covered the story from its beginnings, understood the major players and their struggle—it felt the pain of activists desperately trying to get people to listen to them and help them as all their friends (and often they themselves) were dropping dead. Dallas Buyers Club takes that story and strips away all context, making it about a good ole boy Erin Brockovich who learns along the way that the gays aren't so scary after all.
Thus, he gets a new best-pal gay to help him find clients for the Buyers Club, played by Jared Leto in a wildly over-the-top performance that's sporadically moving—particularly when he makes a rare appearance dressed as a man to appeal to a father who has long since rejected him—but mostly pitched about three or four octaves too high. (It's one of those performances where you can sort of see Leto patting himself on the back.) And thus, it turns into a fight-against-the-system drama, with McConaughey making impassioned speeches to a medical industry that won't listen to him and his impeccable Texan charm. There's also a thankless pseudo-love interest played by the perpetually dull Jennifer Garner. She's a doctor who believes in what the Buyers Clubs are doing but can't fight the system, man. To give you an idea of how her character comes off, well, this is the sort of movie where a male character sees a woman in a hospital and just can't believe she's a doctor rather than a nurse.
This is all well-intentioned, but it's still obnoxious hokum, an important story so distilled and stripped of its essence that by the end, it's not about AIDS and the fight for new drugs at all. It could be about any disease, and any community: It becomes a story about a sick guy fighting The Man, man, to get well. And one point, McConaughey, while grocery shopping with Leto, runs into one of his old pals who can't believe he's hanging out with one of them crossdressing gays. McConaughey turns on his tough-guy face: "He's a person, just like you and me." This is a movie about the AIDS crisis that feels obliged to remind us that gays are people, "just like you and me." Ron Woodruff learns in the course of Dallas Buyers Club that gays are good people, thanks to the illness he now shares with many of them. You will forgive the audience for finding his conversion small solace and, well, pretty beside the fucking point.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.