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Tom Tangney

'Dallas Buyers Club': AIDS & the entrepreneur

Actor Matthew McConaughey often plays good ol' boy hustlers but he's never played one quite like the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas bad boy who revels in sex and drugs, gambling and booze.

His life takes a drastic turn one day in 1985 -- and that's what the movie "Dallas Buyers Club" is all about.

"Mr. Woodruff, you've tested positive for HIV," says his doctor. "Have you ever used intravenous drugs? Have you ever engaged in homosexual conduct?"

"Did you say homo? You made a mistake, that's not me."

The doctor estimates he has 30 days left to live, but Woodruff insists that nothing can kill him in 30 days.

For the first 30 minutes or so, it seems as if the film is going to be just a long, sad, sorry tale of a man dying before our very eyes. But Woodruff not only doesn't accept his death sentence, he uses it to give focus to his hitherto unfocused life.

First off, he bribes a hospital orderly to sneak him the experimental AIDS drug, AZT. When he eventually gets caught, he shifts his attention to south of the border where he starts buying a non-toxic protein drug.

From this point on, Woodruff becomes a wheelin' and dealin' Texas entrepreneur, getting effective albeit non-FDA approved drugs and medicines to AIDS patients by the hundreds. Despite constant raids by the cops and the FDA, Woodruff manages to set himself up by calling his business a "club." Hence, the "Dallas Buyers Club."

Taking advantage of a legal loophole, he sells memberships to his "club" for $400 a month, and with membership comes a "free" supply of various medicinal concoctions.

By the way, Woodruff's not a scam artist - he used the same drugs on himself to long outlive his initial 30 day prognosis.

Woodruff's story is an intriguing and unique spin on the AIDS crisis in the late 80's and 90's. The character arc of a homophobic drifter who learns to turn his own personal medical crisis into a life-affirming positive force not only for himself but for many others does have a sort of "Hollywoodized" predictability to it. The film is technically only "inspired" by true events.

But it's the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto that set this movie apart from your standard triumph-over-adversity story line. Both men are widely expected to earn Oscar nominations for their roles.

McConaughey is barely recognizable, having lost 40 pounds to do the part, and Leto is unrecognizable as a transgendered drug addict who becomes Woodruff's business partner.

Losing weight for a role, or gaining weight for that matter, often seems like easy Oscar bait but in these two actors' cases, it's hard to criticize. Their emaciated frames are crucial to convincing us they are indeed AIDS patients. Thankfully, McConaughey and Leto's acting talents are strong enough that the weight loss seems more than just a physical stunt.

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About the Author

Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.


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