Julián receives an unexpected visit from his friend Tomás, who lives in Canada. The two men, accompanied by Julián’s faithful dog, Truman, will share emotional and surprising moments prompted by Julián’s complicated situation.
The first time I had the opportunity to witness a performance by the great Ricardo Darín was 17 years ago, in the twisty crime caper, “Nine Queens” (later remade into an inferior sequel with John C. Reilly). He played a sleazy schemer, both smarmy and charming; you wanted to trust him, but he kept fuckin’ with you. A screen actor since the early 1980s, Darín have always seemed to locate the core of each character he played, his very soul, his driving element, and then toy with our preconceptions of such a character. (For a great example, check out his haunted performance as Benjamín in Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes.”)
Cess Gay’s cancer drama “Truman” (which originally got released in 2015) presents another showcase for Darín. This time, he wisely takes a step back to let his acting comrade, Javier Cámara (Louie C.K.’s Spanish doppelgänger), take equal spotlight in a heart-piercingly restrained performance. The trio creates a touching ode to friendship, a gentle meditation on life and death that, like life itself, is fleeting, with a few particularly memorable moments – all involving its two venerable leads.
As my longtime fans know (I’m speaking to all four of you), I am not a huge fan of cancer dramas, finding most of them manipulative and pointless. Yet Gay, who worked with both actors before on “A Gun in Each Hand,” tries hard to avoid the trappings of, say, Julia Roberts’ tearjerker-from-hell, “Stepmom.” “Truman” is more nuanced, the cancer and impending doom a metaphor for the brevity of our lives, and how they can seem so long and yet end up so unfulfilled, rich but full of regrets. Also, the film happens to be unexpectedly funny – a rarity in films that deal with the slow deterioration of a human being.
The titular Truman happens to be Julián’s (Darín) dog, with whom the stage actor resides in Madrid. Unexpectedly, his best friend Tomás (Cámara) comes to visit the cancer-stricken man from Canada – but only for four days. He’s here to talk Julián out of something-I-will-not-reveal-but-is-quite-obvious. When Julian finds out he freaks out, “Go back to Canada and your penguins!”
The film follows the duo, as Julián makes amends, the running thread being their attempt to find a new owner for Truman. They visit an adoption shelter, an oncology doctor, a bookstore, a restaurant, pick a coffin, meet up with Paula (Dolores Fonzi) – a mutual acquaintance, surprise Julián’s misinformed son, Nico (Oriol Pia) in Amsterdam – and so on and so forth. Those moments – tearjerking dialogues, long goodbyes, getting affairs in order before the imminent demise – do get a bit repetitive in their brash commitment to communicate the inevitability of death, how everything around you falls apart in those final days.
Were it not for Tomás’ sardonic commentary, as if echoing our awareness of those staples, the film would have spiraled into the dreadful “cancer drama abyss.” “Warn me before the next scene like this,” he urges Julián after they walk out of a heartbreaking visit to the vet. He is resistant to his friend’s attempts to get him to open up, terrified of the darkness that may surface within himself. After Julián shares a very intimate and kind thought with Tomás and asks him to do the same, Tomás’ response is both laugh-out-loud funny and touching – a mixture of emotions that can be applied to the overall effect of “Truman.” The conclusion is predictable but suitably poignant.
There are moments of magic sprinkled throughout the inescapable melancholy. When presented with a simple crayon drawing from Tomás’ kids, Julián, overwhelmed, responds, “See, these are the moments we will have to avoid.” “How do dogs experience grief?” Julián wonders at one point. In a bookstore, he compares a book about dealing with death to having a guide on a trip to Thailand. When a fellow actor ignores him at a restaurant, Julián proceeds to confront him; “People don’t know what to say to me,” he says. An encounter in a restaurant leads to an unexpected, heartfelt gesture from a longtime friend.
Upfront, witty, self-loathing and arrogant, Julián is a vibrant character, bringing to mind Javier Bardem’s performance in “Biutiful.” Truman is his last link to life, to everything vivacious within him, and watching him part with the dog, his best friend, is as heartbreaking for the viewer as it is for Tomás. Julián’s polar opposite, Tomás is insecure, stoic and reserved. They have an easy, lived-in chemistry. “You’re very nervous,” Julián tells Tomás on an airplane. “Why don’t you go jerk off? You remember how to jerk off, don’t you?”
Straddling the line between grim manipulation and true-to-life observations (perfectly illustrated in the scene where Julián urinates on himself in a cafe, then says, “I used to be a romantic hero!”), “Truman” is insightful, funny and dire. Whether you’ll want to watch it over and over again is highly debatable. Whether it is even necessary is an inquiry worthy of another essay. Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara shine, though, and those seeking to fill their time watching a well-directed, well-acted cancer drama (I know you’re out there!) could do worse.
Opens in Dallas Friday, April 21st