Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a cancer movie? A dog movie? A buddy movie? Well, the answer is yes – at least somewhat – to all three. Writer/director Cesc Gay and co-writer Tomas Aragay offer up an unusually paced and uniquely focused film that is likely to strike a chord with many viewers, while leaving some others thinking, what’s the point? For those of us in that first group, it’s an absorbing ride-along with a not overly likeable character who is out to put his proverbial “affairs in order”.
Two exceedingly talented actors take the lead here and draw us right in. Ricardo Darin (terrific in The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) is Julian, and Javier Camara (an Almodovar regular, so shuddersome in Talk to Her) is his long time friend Tomas. Knowing his friend is dying, Tomas hops on a plane back to Madrid, from his new life in Canada, in order to spend four days and yes, to say goodbye.
The surprise visit sends the two long-time buds on a kind of (mostly) inner-city “road trip”. Their daily outings include: a trip to the veterinarian so Julian can prepare his dog Truman (a non-puppy Bullmastiff) for the coming change; a doctor visit to convey the desire to cease treatment on the tumors; a bookstore to search for material on pet psychology; a diner where Julian confronts old friends – a lunch that provides significant insight into Julian’s mindset; an in-home visit to a potential pet adoption family; a direct chat proving ‘the show must go on’ with the owner (Jose Luis Gomez) of the theatre where Julian works as an actor; a spur of the moment flight to Amsterdam for lunch with Julian’s estranged son Nico and wife Sophie; and a meet on the street with Julian’s ex-wife. In between, there are exchanges with Julian’s cousin Paula (a very good Dolores Fonzi) who can’t hide her frustration despite offering unwavering support.
There are many wonderfully subtle moments that keep the story grounded and prevent anything approaching the typically over-dramatic movie that we have become so accustomed to. Death and comedy don’t tend to blend well, but there are some charming and even comical moments that sneak in … sometimes during the moments that Julian is expressing regret for things said or done, or not said or done. He attempts to make amends, but this isn’t about the profound moments – no, it’s about the small ones. When Julian mutters the brilliant line, “I used to be a romantic hero”, we know exactly what it means. This isn’t the usual tear-jerker, but it will likely tug at the heart strings, even as it touches on death on one’s own terms (a common cinematic theme these days).