Compassion is a human trait that should be natural to everyone, but is sometimes hard to deliver.
This week, two new movies deal with compassion, and of looking outside of one’s own self-interest to develop a strong sense of the greater good.
Both movies also use the concept of time in intriguing fashion , albeit in vastly different ways. “About Time” is the latest film from romantic-comedy master Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and follows the escapades of a young man who learns that he has the ability to time travel within the space of his own particular life and alter past events to create better present-day results.
Meanwhile, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” offers up the stark yet heroic true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic straight man who contracted AIDS in the mid-1980s from risky sex with needle users and managed to save both his life and those of countless gay men by taking the chance on importing unapproved new drugs from Mexico to fight the disease. Starring Matthew McConnaughey and Jared Leto in performances that will likely earn them Oscars nominations, it hits home by showing that even the hardest of hearts can be moved to care for those that seem to be the most undesirable elements of society.
“About Time” is the easier film to digest, offering up a romantic fantasy that almost anyone could wish for. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is a geeky man in his 20s who is always unlucky in love, until one day his father (Bill Nighy) tells him that all men in their family have a secret ability to transform the past of their own personal lives and circumstances through very specific time travel.
Tim uses this skill to romantic and humorous effect in order to try winning over a beautiful woman during a summer vacation, but fails. When he makes another attempt to lure an American woman named Mary (Rachel McAdams), however, he wins her over in glorious fashion but realizes he can never tell her what he’s done, or else risk looking crazy or dishonest.
As the couple gets married and has children, “About Time” shifts from being a clever comedy to a richer drama about the changes one goes through in life and in longtime marriages. Along the way, Tim keeps trying to use his secret ability to save or improve his loved ones’ lives, including saving his alcoholic sister from a terrible car crash caused by her being DUI.
The problem is, that writer-director Richard Curtis has given viewers too much of a good thing, for while the movie is expertly acted and touchingly crafted, it feels somewhat stretched out and overlong as it goes through one touching relationship resolution after another and yet another.
But the actors are all solid, and the concept is an inventive one for the often-predictable genre. That fact, and the first half’s frequently funny situations, should keep men from being too bored while women will likely love it all the way through.
Meanwhile, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” features a man with an entirely different dilemma. Ron Woodroof (McConnaughey) has checked into a hospital because he’s feeling dizzy and gaunt after dropping a ton of weight in a matter of months. He learns that he has full-blown AIDS and that doctors are giving him 30 days to live, a double shock because he has only heard that AIDS is a disease afflicting gay men.
But when he accepts his fate, and learns that the only drug being tested to fight AIDS – AZT – is in fact hastening most patients’ deaths in trial runs, Woodroof heads south of the border and learns that a rogue doctor has a variety of other medications and proteins that are succeeding. Making deals with that doctor as well as Rayon (Leto), the drag queen who was in the next bed over from him in the hospital, he beats the system and charges of illegally selling the drugs by setting up a “buyer’s club” in which any person who pays $400 a month can have all the drugs they need to survive.
Of course, this means that the unlikely duo of Ron and Rayon are left to not only fight for their lives but also fight the FDA every step of the way. Director Jon-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have given the superb stars plenty to work with and audiences plenty of compelling material to consider, as “Club” mixes dark humor, dramatic tension, and well-earned tears to share the tale of an unlikely hero who not only survived for years but led the way to saving millions of lives.
“About Time” is as soft an R as one can imagine, with barely enough foul language and sex talk to merit its rating. There are perhaps a total of 25 profanities and obscenities, with four F words, about six S words and a total of about 15 uses of God’s name in vain, including nearly 10 JC’s, a couple of GDs and the rest OMGs. Aside from that, sexual techniques are discussed graphically in a couple of lines during a very brief scene that is played for laughs, as the young man nervously blurts out a few too many details to her parents during their first meeting. Its pro-family, pro-marriage and pro-baby scenes far outweigh the negatives.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is a whole other story, often pushing the limits of its R rating with a barrage of profanities, including easily 50 F words, and a full array of other obscenities and many uses of God’s name in vain in various forms. However, as the movie goes on and Woodroof settles into being a kinder and gentler person, his language and demeanor improve greatly as well, meaning that while it is rather extreme in the first half, the filmmakers were trying to show Woodruff’s transformation even on the language level.
Aside from that, “Club” has several graphic and extended scenes of casual sex between two and three partners as well as a scene of implied masturbation.
“Club” also features Woodroof and his drag queen business partner Rayon entering several gay dance clubs, where other men are shown dancing passionately with each other, and a couple of brief passionate male-male kisses are shown. This disgusts Woodroof at first, but eventually he feels compassion for the people who become his clients and fights to the death to find better medicine to help not just himself but others – resulting in him earning credit for stopping the use of AZT as the primary anti-AIDS drug and finding medicinal combinations – or cocktails - that earned years to his and others’ life spans.
“Club” may sound like an extreme movie, and some of its content is indeed pushing the limits of morality. However, it is clear that the filmmakers are trying to provide an accurate portrait of Woodroof’s life and the illicit behaviors that gave birth to the AIDS crisis, rather than trying to be exploitative – and Woodroof never fully endorses their lifestyle, but rather sees the positive sides of his partner and clients outweighing the bad.
For those discerning adults who can handle some strongly immoral content, “Club” offer viewers not only a fascinating history lesson in how AIDS was prevented from becoming an uncontrollable epidemic and also a valuable lesson in compassion and understanding towards those who are deemed the pariahs of society.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.