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Rated 3.09 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
by Donald Levit

Ron Woodroof died in 1992. His name is being resuscitated, his story rather fictionalized by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and striking current chords. Originating from a newspaper piece while the subject was still alive, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club has won awards and Oscar nominations for itself and for Matthew McConaughey -- coincidentally Dallas in Magic Mike -- and Jared Leto; at the same time it re-opens wounds, reminds the world that a killer has lost a battle but not the war, and not surprisingly castigates Big Pharma, a host of acronymic federal agencies and the medical profession.

The second of this just shy of two hours goes straight in a predictable line, to an expected triumphant-despite conclusion. What informs the whole, however, raising it above simple smile-through-your-fear-and–sorrow schmaltz it might have been, are performances from two male leads, McConaughey as Woodroof and Leto as ironic, strong yet vulnerable transsexual Rayon, at once tragic and the sole glimmer of humor in a grim picture.

At the opening, getting it on with two groupies in the animal chutes, sometimes electrician and rodeo bull rider Woodruff is foul-mouthed, a drinker, multiple drug abuser, smoker and wencher, a good ol’ boy homophobe. (A sketchy flash hints at one brief, suppressed-memory men’s room encounter.) A mishap calls for blood tests, which reveal the presence of HIV-AIDS. In obscene denial, he stalks out on not tactful or sympathetic Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and timid Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner in a part with nowhere to go), who give him thirty days max and are at the beginning of testing and researching the disease then thought to be confined to gay people (and so new that it was at times referred to as GRID, Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease).

Fulminating against “queers” like Rock Hudson, he tries to resume the old lifestyle but his body says that he cannot. Back in the hospital he meets fellow patient Rayon, who on the outside will dicker for a larger cut of profits when Ron solicits her help peddling drugs to others similarly infected.

Bribes to an orderly (Ian Casselberry) secure personal supplies of AZT, azidothymidine, still in use and then generally unattainable but the only drug being tested against a placebo by the FDA. That drying up, he goes south of the Rio Grande to disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who insists that the drug is actually poisonous and treats patients with a mix of ingredients that improves his condition. Profit motive initially outbalancing charity, Ron sets up business smuggling in non-approved and –available drugs to sell.

Stigmatized by former macho buddies for the “faggot” implications at least as much as for the physical reality of the illness, Ron appreciates and empathizes with Rayon though their relationship is not all sweetness and light and he is careful to underline that she is purely his business partner. His revealed depth of humanity rescues and makes him likeable. Her depth and sensible sassiness make her loveable, two scenes particularly etching the character: a visit to her father (James DuMont) and even briefer but exquisite frames of her face when, a plus for him too, Ron forces an ex-crony to shake her hand.

How to Survive a Plague documented the politics and ACT UP and TAG Regan-era fight to free up funding and medication and is a better survey of the grass roots campaign against government and business. Both films emphasize the self-schooling in pathology, pharmacology and drug distribution. DBC border control and federal agencies are as clueless as Hogan’s Heroes camp guards, while government and medical personnel are to a man near as nasty as real Nazis. It takes time for Ron and Rayon’s lines of customers -- for $400 memberships in the club, with no “sales” of merchandise -- to draw attention and for the business to be harassed, like Capone, by IRS, sparking the now hero and not simply lowlife outlaw to his selfless crusade and into viewers’ affections.

(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.)

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