“Truman” – An allegory [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Truman” is a sincere attempt at showing the intimacy only old friends can share. Julián, a respected actor, is dying. He knows it, his friends know it and maybe even his dog Truman knows it. Still, he is surprised when Tomas, now living in Canada with his wife and children, shows up unannounced at his apartment. He’s come to spend a few days with his best friend before saying his last goodbye.
Julián, pragmatic in every aspect of his life, is unsentimental and straightforward. He’s dying of cancer and has refused additional treatment; he has changed nothing in his daily routine but is very happy, an emotion that probably surprises him, that Tomas has come. Julián, still acting, has the lead in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the irony of which is highlighted when later Julián, dining in a local café with Tomas, spies an old friend. He approaches that table and, in a rather twelve step manner, apologizes to the man for having seduced his wife and, consequently, ruined their marriage. Quite alright, he’s told, for his friend is now with a very much younger woman and had Julián not wrecked his marriage he’d have (probably) never met his paramour.
Julián does, however, have one major concern as he prepares systematically for his demise — Truman, his big, slobbery dog. Who will care for Truman? But Julián has that covered as well. He has begun interviews for new owners, although one by one they don’t pan out for any number of reasons.
Throughout, Tomas is a somewhat passive observer. But then that, perhaps, is as it should be since this is not about him but about the “bigger than life” Julián. Tomas’s presence emboldens Julián and he makes the spontaneous decision to visit his son… in Amsterdam where he is studying. The attempt of father and son to connect is the most effective scene in the film as Julián tries but cannot bring himself to tell his son that his cancer is not in remission and that he will soon die. The awkwardness between them is palpable for reasons that Julián will learn later.
That Tomas appears so peripheral to Julián’s story is an effective device as it is his observational, supportive presence that seems to anchor the story.
Directed and written by Cesc Gay, “Truman” is never maudlin, thereby making it far more effective and affective. More of a “day-in-the-life” story, or, specifically, several days in the life, Gay reveals the mundane passage of the inexorable path to the end, but one that is filled with dignity. Never exciting, the film also is never boring. Still one hoped for a less tone-deaf approach to male-female relations. How much more effective and touching might Julián’s apology have been if the cuckolded husband had not extolled the virtues of trading in for a much younger prettier model? Even worse, Cesc couldn’t seem to find a better goodbye between Tomas and Julián’s mutual friend Paula than to have the married Tomas hop into bed with her before leaving for Canada. Really? So men can’t be friends with women unless there’s a sexual element? Hot younger women in Spain can’t wait to jump in the sack with slightly sad-sack older bald guys? The first instance could almost be forgiven but the second was a sour note on which to end a film that had shown a clear-eyed, straight-forward, non-sentimental vision of friendship and death.
Ricardo Darin, Julián, was near perfection. Charismatic, warm, prickly, unsentimental, it’s easy to see why he is a major star in Argentina. He makes you want to forgive him all his past indiscretions, and it’s clear there were many. Javier Cámara, Tomas, a regular in Almodovar films, was highly effective as the seemingly passive best friend. He was our eyes and ears. Dolores Fonzi, Paula, is fiery and lovely to look at but there was little she could do in her thankless role. In the fleeting role of Julián’s ex-wife Gloria, Elvira Minguez is as pragmatic and unsentimental as Julián. No longer the great beauty she must have been at one time, she was surely his equal and Minguez is able to show it in the bat of an eye.
Despite a few missteps, Gay gives us an affecting portrait of an interesting man as he organizes his last days. Not an easy task.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
Opening Friday April 14 at the Laemmle Royal and Pasadena Playhouse 7.