There are apparently some spoilers ahead. As a thinking person going to see a movie about the life of a dog, I didn’t consider them spoilers, but there may be some of you who will be shocked by certain events I reveal in my review. You’ve been warned.
Goddammit, this movie WORKS. This film is guaranteed to send everyone out of the theater with red eyes and wet cheeks, and to its credit, Marley & Me achieves that with a maximum amount of class and a minimum amount of manipulation.
Based on the bestselling book by John Grogan, Marley & Me is the ‘true’ story of Grogan, his wife and a puppy they adopted as newlyweds. The puppy, Marley, grew into a huge, rambunctious, impossible to control, loving and lovable dog that was an integral part of their lives through loss, celebration and turbulence. Yeah, it’s occasionally as sappy as you think it might be, but it’s also often funny, charming and sweet.
There are some out there who will try to be immune to this film. There are people who don’t like dogs, and there will be people who automatically put up all defenses when they see a big studio animal picture. And then there are those (and I’m in this camp, for sure) who wouldn’t go see a Jennifer Aniston/Owen Wilson picture unless it was a snuff film. But if these people give Marley & Me an actual chance, I think they’ll love it. Or at least begrudgingly admit that they didn’t hate it.
The secret of Marley & Me is that dog. Or those dogs, as the case may be, since Marley is played at different ages by a number of dogs (only distracting when they get to Old Marley, who is manifestly a completely different looking animal. He may have been a schnauzer, in fact). Marley is an almost primordial bad dog, a dog who just chews through everything and won’t follow any of the rules of the house and who makes every minute of his owner’s life a pain in the ass. But he’s a good dog too – loving and sweet and full of affection. He’ll chew on your computer but never on your leg. That’s the dichotomy that makes him so great, and it’s the basis of the modern American dog – uncontrolled, untamed, but absolutely adorable. We pretend like we want a well-behaved dog, but the truth is that we want that big slobbery beast who jumps up on our chest when we come home.
Marley is the epitome of that big, slobbery beast.
The film avoids many of the sentimental traps of the genre – even a scene where the dog comforts Jennifer Aniston after a miscarriage (seriously) is downplayed and avoids being cloying. The script by Don Roos and Scott Frank keeps the humorous tone of Grogan’s book, trusting that the emotion will be there all on its own. It’s a nice bit of restraint (comparitive. Look, this isn’t a Kubrick picture) that director David Frankel keeps up. This is Frankel’s second film to surprise the hell out of me; I found The Devil Wears Prada to be a really, really good movie that transcended any sexist chick flick stereotyping.
Coming in second behind the dogs who played Marley is Alan Arkin as the editor of the Florida newspaper where Grogan works and writes columns featuring his dog. Arkin’s entering the prime of his cranky old man phase, and he is delightfully dry throughout. Watching the loosey goosey Owen Wilson try to hold his own against this actor in a number of scenes is like watching the 2004 tsunami wash over Indonesia. Arkin does so much with a glance and a bit of posture that his lines feel like icing on a crotchety cake of deliciousness.
Wilson’s not bad. I tend to like him best when he’s working with stronger co-stars, and that’s defintely the case with the dogs here. Weirdly, Wilson plays Grogan as a guy who has more of a connection and chemistry with his dog than with his kids. As a certified, registered child hater I could really appreciate this acting decision. The kids are worst part of the movie anyway.
In fact it’s the kids that skid the film off course (much as they will do with your life. Wear rubbers). When Grogan and his wife start spitting out offspring the film unwisely moves from their great relationship with the dog to focus on the mundane issues of being a well-paid newspaper columnist struggling to make it as a lower upper class Floridian. Rule of thumb: if you own a house with a pool I don’t want to hear you fucking whine. Nobody made you have kids.
It’s in this section of the film (aka, a big chunk of the second act) that the movie seemed to start siding with me in my irrational dislike of Jennifer Aniston. Her character, beset on all sides by screaming kids, an irrepresible dog and that bitch Angelina Jolie appearing in the news every goddamn day, starts freaking out. She doesn’t edge towards being a shrew, she just becomes a full out heinous bitch. She demands that Marley get evicted from the house. Fuck that noise.
But of course things clear up, since these are white people with lots and lots of money. The film then heads into the third act where it proceeds to emotionally deconstruct you as Marley gets older and weaker and frailer. I spent the last 20 or 30 minutes of the film crying; apparently after the screening a young girl was sobbing in the bathroom.
Marley’s decline is tough stuff, but it’s not exploitative. And I’m glad to see it in a movie skewing to kids; we spend too much time these days rubber coating our playgrounds and safety shielding the young ones so that no life touches them. They turn into 18 year old retards who can’t deal with anything. I’m not saying that an old dog dying will toughen these spoiled bastards up, but I am saying that the fact that people are getting riled up about this fact is a sign that we’ve turned into a soft, soft nation. I feel like parents would plotz if their kids watched Old Yeller these days.
What I liked best about Marley & Me was the lack of messages in the film. I didn’t feel like the dog taught anybody super valuable lessons about life, or that having the dog somehow made Grogan a better dad. The movie simply celebrates the beauty of having a faithful companion and is a moving paen to the unconditional love that only a dog can give you. The main message of Marley & Me seems to be ‘having a dog is totally fucking awesome. Dogs rule,’ and I can get behind that 100 percent.