HIV and AIDS have fallen out of the headlines lately. Now that the disease can often be controlled, it is not the automatic death sentence it was when it emerged in the 1980s. The road from then to now has been fraught and it has been peopled with some of the most unlikely of heroes.
Ron Woodroof is as unlikely a hero as they come. He is a profane, homophobic, xenophobic, hard drinking, chain smoking, line snorting guy who cheats his friends. Given the news that he has AIDS and that he has thirty days “to put his affairs in order,” he reacts exactly as you would expect him to. Until he doesn’t.
Matthew McConaughey is very good as Woodroof. He reportedly lost forty pounds for this role and he looks terrible, right from the start. It is more than his looks that won him the Oscar. He manages to subvert our expectations of this character by imbuing him with guts, intelligence, and charm. McConaughey approaches this character with a compassion that forces us to, at the very least, respect the man.
It would have been easy for McConaughey to play this role halfway, winking at the audience, letting us know that it is Woodroof who is so unpleasant, not the actor himself. McConaughey never does that.
Which, of course, makes his redemption that much more powerful. As we watch this man become committed to helping others with his disease, we begin to root and cheer for him even though we can’t completely like him.
So, who do we like? That would be Rayon, the cross dresser who becomes Ron’s business partner. Jared Leto is a revelation, unrecognizable when he is in drag. His voice, his mannerisms, his actions are all perfect and I fell in love with him from the moment he appears on screen.
Rayon is a lost soul, the reasons for which become clear in a scene with his father that broke my heart. Unlike Ron, he is unable to completely exorcise his demons. He is, however, able to be who is he without apology and without shame.
Ron and Rayon are the ultimate odd couple. Watching them come together as partners and, over time, friends is handled extremely well. We, and Rayon, don’t understand just how much Ron is coming around until a very quick scene in a grocery store. All of sudden, we realize that Ron views Rayon as a friend. We are as moved as Rayon. Ron’s grief at Rayon’s inevitable death is palpable and heartbreaking.
While McConaughey’s and Leto’s performances are outstanding, much of the movie doesn’t really work. The story, while based on true events, has been turned into a clichéd man against the machine tale that has the ending we would all expect. Everyone representing the status quo, from the customs agents to the FDA representatives, are shown to be unfeeling, uncaring bureaucrats whose sole purpose is to work against Ron and his business.
Many of the other characters we meet tend towards the stock as well. There is the doctor who has lost his license who is the one who is doing the most good. There is the lawyer doing what he can, but not really fighting the fight. There is the requisite love interest, although it is platonic given what this story is about.
The love interest in this case is another doctor, Eve, one who cares about her patients and wants to help them as much as she can. Jennifer Garner does as much as she can with this character, but unfortunately there is not a lot for her to work with. The scene in which we are meant to see that she has completely joined the cause doesn’t work at all.
There are moments, meant to be profound, that don’t quite hit. An early scene shows Ron in what looks like a church, but ends up being a strip club. Even that early in the movie, it is clear that Ron would never walk into a church. The reveal is too obvious. In another, Rayon tells Ron to take flowers when he meets Eve for dinner. He takes her a painting of flowers, which ends up having been painted by his mother. What should have been moving feels forced. Similarly, a scene where Ron walks into a room with swarming bugs was just a bit too on the nose.
Overall, the movie didn’t quite work and I glanced at the clock too often. But, I would highly recommend that you watch it at least once. McConaughey’s and Leto’s performances are worthy of all the plaudits they received and are worthy of two hours of your time.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.