" Aw come on, it’s just a bug "
— Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

Sponsored links

It probably would have been hard to make a bad version of this film. One of the main characters is a curmudgeonly actor bravely facing a terminal diagnosis. The title character is his dog.

Sure enough, Truman is enjoyable in all the ways you expect it to be. In spite of the grim premise, it’s about finding everything that is good in life.

Thankfully, the film avoids the worst mistakes. It doesn’t get too maudlin or sentimental, and it lets its curmudgeon stay true to his gruff self.

So Many Appointments, So Little Time

Truman walks his master in Madrid
Truman walks his master in Madrid

Tomas (Javier Cámara) is a Spanish expat living in Canada. He returns to Madrid to see his old friend Julian (Ricardo Darín). He can only stay for a few days, but he wanted to see Julian once more before he died. Julian has been given a terminal diagnosis. Lung cancer.

Julian is still healthy and working (he’s a stage actor, and a leading man at that), but he knows what’s coming. He’s in the midst of putting his affairs in order when Tomas arrives. Julian is single. He lives alone except for Truman. Truman is Julian’s dog, an older large-breed dog, maybe a boxer.

Tomas is the perfect audience surrogate. It’s been long enough since he and Julian have seen each other that there’s plenty of exposition/catching-up to do. Being Julian’s visitor, Tomas gets dragged to Julian’s various appointments and encounters with old friends.

Julian handles most of his appointments and reunions with stoicism, courage, determination, and a little black humor. The only subject he’s incapable of joking about is what to do with Truman after he’s gone. Julian works with his veterinarian to spread the word about finding a new home for Truman when he “moves away.” But he doesn’t want Truman to end up just anywhere. And he’d like to meet the family that will adopt Truman in person, so he can approve them.

4 Days, 2 Men

Through the course of the film, we get to know the old friends... how they met, how Tomas moved to Canada, what has happened in-between.... Audience sympathy grows deeper the more we get to know them. It’s more mundane than profound, mind you, but there’s satisfaction to be had in watching well developed characters. The script (by Tomàs Aragay and director Cesc Gay) is good, but what really makes Truman work so well is the performances by Cámara and Darín. The share an unself-conscious friendship, as though they really have known each other for years.

Julian is gregarious and blunt, Tomas is shy and cautious. That’s partly their natural personalities, and partly that Julian has had more time to come to terms with his own cancer, while Tomas is treading carefully. Julian feels free to make bold, casual statements about mortality and spirituality that make Thomas — and maybe the audience too — a little nervous. For example, Julian says at least twice that he was an atheist, but now with the cancer, he changed his mind.

At a book store, Julian looks at books on self-help and mysticism.

At Tomas’ look of skepticism, he replies, “If I were going to Thailand, I’d need a map. Same deal.”

Borrowed Courage

Tomas’ four-day visit is short, and it’s packed. It keeps the movie’s pace flying as the men drift from appointment to meal to appointment to meal. At the very first appointment, Julian tells his doctor that he’s not coming back. Later, he makes his first visit to a mortuary.

The idea of cramming many death appointments into four days at first sounded contrived. But seeing the movie, I think it makes sense. A visit from an old friend might give someone like Julian the moral support needed to finally make these kinds of appointments.

Maybe Julian isn’t as courageous in the face of death as he seemed. Maybe he needed Tomas before he could really be brave.