The last time most viewers saw Matthew McConaughey was in last year's stripper comedy "Magic Mike," when he played a strutting slab of beef named, coincidentally, Dallas. Prepare yourself for a shock: In the new biopic "Dallas Buyers Club," McConaughey has shed nearly 50 pounds to play a real-life AIDS victim. At something like a third of his normal weight (the 6-foot-tall actor reportedly plummeted to 135 pounds), McConaughey is almost literally a shadow of his former self.
He is also twice the actor he's ever been, delivering the performance of his career as Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan diagnosed with HIV in 1985. This somewhat fictionalized version of Woodroof is a foul-mouthed sleazeball addicted to cocaine and bargain-priced women, and McConaughey (a Texas native) throws himself into this vividly off-color role, body and soul.
Woodroof initially laughs off his 30-day life sentence. Like Denzel Washington's Captain Whitaker in "Flight," he's seemingly unkillable, a party-cockroach immune to all poisons. After several fainting spells, however, he's begging Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) for the then-breakthrough drug AZT. When he learns that other promising drugs are banned in the United States, Woodroof sets about smuggling them in. All he needs are some customers.
Enter Rayon (an excellent Jared Leto), a transgender woman who becomes Woodroof's unlikely business partner. She's a fictional character, a stand-in for an entire class of people that Woodroof initially abhors. What they share is a desire to live, and Rayon, a gay nightlife denizen with a heroin habit, has the better Rolodex. The movie's best moments are shared between these two outsiders, who evolve from antagonists to co-workers to almost-married couple. A scene in which one of Woodroof's good-ol'-buddies catches them bickering in the supermarket is nearly worth the ticket price.
Directed with a bit of flair by Jean-Marc Valée from a well-crafted script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, "Dallas Buyers Club" mostly unfolds as a solid and straightforward biopic, but McConaughey is so fierce and funny that he turns it into something transcendent. When he's on the screen, the movie feels thrillingly alive.
PLOT In 1985, a homophobic Texan with AIDS becomes an unlikely hero for the gay community.
RATING R (pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use)
CAST Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
BOTTOM LINE A solid biopic is made transcendent by McConaughey, who shed nearly 50 pounds and deserves to gain an Oscar for his ferocious, funny performance.
McCONAUGHEY IS WAY MORE THAN ABS
After a string of fluffy rom-coms ("Failure to Launch," "The Wedding Planner") and mindless actioners ("Reign of Fire," "Sahara"), it was hard to regard Matthew McConaughey as more than prime Texas beef with a well-chiseled six-pack. But over the past two years, he's become a darling of critics, thanks to these complex performances.
KILLER JOE (2011) -- As a Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer, McConaughey earns kudos from critics, including Newsday's Rafer Guzmán, who found him "charming, funny and repellent all at once."
BERNIE (2012) -- "The actor wears the role of good ol' boy-political opportunist as comfortably as the boots and Stetson," the Los Angeles Times wrote of McConaughey's amusing turn as a showboating Texas DA in this black comedy.
MAGIC MIKE (2012) -- McConaughey steals the show as the slick, fast-talking owner of a club featuring male strippers. He also gets to show off his abs -- and more -- during a striptease to KISS' "Calling Dr. Love."
MUD (2012) -- As a Boo Radley-ish loner living on the bayou in this noirish thriller, McConaughey's powerful performance inspired The Washington Post to note "the boy with the bedroom eyes and bong-hit grin is a real actor, after all."
-- Daniel Bubbeo