Thursday, April 23, 2009

Marley & Me

Director: David Frankel
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin, Eric Dane, Kathleen Turner
Running Time: 115 min.

Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★)


Consider yourself warned. The last 45 minutes of Marley & Me are excruciating to sit through, particularly if you've ever owned a dog at any point during your life. If you're like me and haven't, then the last 45 minutes are still excruciating to sit through. It's been promoted as a warm and fuzzy family comedy (which it mostly is) but boy is it sad. You could also call it shameless, manipulative fluff but doing that would completely miss the point. The film has only one goal: Show how dogs can positively impact and sometimes even change our lives. So, to that end, it's an unqualified success.

Whenever someone shows me a photo of their dog it always amazes me how their face lights up as they tell stories about the canine as if it were their own child. Since I've never had one I'll never fully understand that feeling, but I imagine this movie does a pretty good job capturing it. The emotions it explores are very real and it's a safe bet anyone with a beating heart will be moved by this story. There is one charming lead human performance (as well as a really bland one) but nothing else in the picture matters except the dog. And that's how it should be. They really are man's best friend and this movie is a great reminder why.

Based on the beloved, best-selling memoir by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan, the film explores what happens when John (Owen Wilson) gives wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) a puppy for her birthday upon their arrival at their new home in South Florida. They name "Marley." Yes, after Bob Marley. Both are hired by competing newspapers as reporters, but at the behest of his editor (Alan Arkin, cranky as always) John takes on a new role as a humor columnist, poking fun at everyday life. Marley turns out to be the dog from hell, a disobedient terror who chews on furniture, eats answering machines and is impossible to control, making great fodder for the column but putting loads of stress on their marriage. When John and Jenny decide to have children the dog becomes an important part of their lives too as the film spans 14 years, even if I'm not entirely sure what that converts to in dog years.

Owen Wilson's laid back, down-to-Earth performance grounds everything, reminding us just how likable he is in the right role. He even kind of even reminds you of a shaggy dog with his appearance which could help explain why he seems right at home opposite the 22 dogs that played Marley. It isn't easy sharing screen time with animals but he makes it look effortless and he shares many surprisingly moving scenes with Marley in the final act. Besides carrying the entire load of the picture he also shares as decent chemistry as is possible with Aniston, who's as bland as ever. Whereas Wilson was hired for what he'd bring to the role, Aniston was only cast because they thought a "big name" would put audiences in seats, which is ironic considering she's never drawn at all at the box office nor given a single performance suggesting she should be known for anything other than posing nude on a magazine cover to promote a family film.

What's funniest is when this opened against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Christmas weekend the media hyped it as the latest "battle" between Brad and Jennifer. Too bad they forgot to take into account that Pitt was starring in an epic period film spanning decades where he had to play a character at different ages and act against heavy make-up and visual effects. Aniston is playing a housewife in a dog movie... and not even particularly well. While not actively terrible, she adds nothing to the role and just about any other random actress could have done more with it. Her "star" presence is more of a distraction and she was obviously cast as some kind of olive branch to wronged housewives everywhere who studio executives thought could be the target audience for the picture. Worse yet, the character is a nag who hates the dog and complains about everything. The script blames it on postpartum depression but Aniston just goes all out and practically plays her as a complete bitch. I was waiting for the guy to leave her for Angelina.

Kathleen Turner has a brief cameo as a dog trainer while Grey's Anatomy's Eric Dane is John's best friend Sebastian. He's competent in a part that requires absolutely nothing. He's not necessarily believable as a highly successful reporter (if there is such a thing anymore) but after seeing Kate Bosworth as a Pulitzer Prize winner in Superman Returns I'm willing to buy just about anything. It makes you long for the days where the title of "reporter" or "journalist" commanded respect and a high paying salary, even if I'd question whether it was ever high paying enough for John and his wife to afford that house they live in. But this is still supposed to be a romantic comedy so we'll let that one slide.

What happens in the last hour has to be one of the worst kept movie secrets of 2008. It seemed as if every time I turned on the television or read a review a critic would state it was so sad and they cried their eyes out but they just "can't reveal what happens." Gee, I wonder. Didn't they just do exactly that? Well, I'll be upfront with you, extend the courtesy of a BIG SPOILER and flat-out out tell you that the dog passes away. And he doesn't just pass away, he passes away slowly and agonizingly for nearly an hour straight. But as painful as that is to watch I don't think the film would have been as effective without it. It's the last leg of this dog's journey and even though the sentiment and schmaltz is poured on as thick as maple syrup by director David Frankel, it's well earned and mostly kept in check.

Marley may be the "world's worst dog" but they come to accept him as that and eventually learn to appreciate him, faults and all. It sounds corny when I say it but the surprisingly sharp script from veteran screen scribes Scott Frank and Don Roos mostly avoid cliches to make the story as much about the trials of marriage and parenthood as the dog. Despite my problems with Aniston's non-performance I will say John and Jenny's relationship feels genuine and not like it's out of a bad sitcom. The film isn't laugh out loud funny but it's filled with many real life moments dog owners and parents will probably giggle at. There's a lot to relate to here, whether you've had kids, a pet, or even neither. If you love dogs you'll love Marley & Me. If you don't love dogs, you will when it's over. And no I wasn't crying. Something just got in my eye.

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