Sometimes screening schedules and the intrusions of everyday, regular life don’t align, or other assignments take precedent over films in which you might have more of an interest in a head-to-head pick ’em. Such was the case with Marley & Me, a movie that 20th Century Fox actually proactively screened, in an against-trend moment, yet I felt I could likely take or leave. The Butterscotch Stallion and the erstwhile Mrs. Brad Pitt, a rambunctious dog and some Family Circus-type familial angst… got it, check. Yet circumstances contrived to put me in a theater with a general audience over the Christmas break, and I was pleased with what unfolded.
I won’t say I was surprised, really, because I liked all the talent behind-the-scenes, which seemed to augur a competent production. I will say instead that Marley & Me is an above-the-line triumph of a different sort, because it so clearly represents an across-the-board, streamlined uniformity of vision with no sacrifice of quality; director David Frankel proves that his work on the 2006 summer smash The Devil Wears Prada was no mere source-text fluke, and Scott Frank and Don Roos, two talented screenwriters, do a great job of adapting John Grogan’s best-selling, same-named memoir with wit, clarity and heart.
The film opens with newlyweds John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), leaving behind the harsh winters of Michigan on their wedding night, and heading south to
begin their new lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. They obtain jobs as
journalists at competing local newspapers, buy their first home, and
begin to make their way through the challenges of a new marriage, new
careers and, possibly, the life-changing decision to start a family. Unsure of his preparedness for raising children, though, John confesses his hesitation to his friend and fellow journalist Sebastian (Eric Dane), who comes up with
the perfect solution: get a puppy. “There’s nothing
to it,” says Sebastian. “You walk ’em. You feed ’em, you let ’em out
now and then.”
So the Grogans adopt a cute, little yellow Labrador and name him after reggae superstar Bob Marley. In no
time at all, though, they have a 100-pound steamroller of unbridled energy
that turns the Grogan home into a disaster area. He flunks obedience
school (mauling Kathleen Turner in the process), chews through sofa cushions and dry-wall, overturns
garbage cans, steals a Thanksgiving turkey, consumes flowers and toilet water, and chases the UPS guy. Even a
newly-purchased, expensive necklace isn’t safe from Marley’s gaping maw, which leads John to have to sift through poop for retrieval. The story marches inexorably forward, though; John becomes a weekly columnist, almost against his will, and Jenny quits her job. And amidst all the mayhem he generates, Marley helps see the
Grogans through the ups and downs of having kids, through job and home
changes, and most of all, just the myriad everyday challenges of a growing
family. Eventually, however, Marley grows old, and weak, forcing the Grogans to make some tough decisions.
Yes, Marley & Me has a couple peppy montage sequences of destruction aimed at producing squeals of delight from younger viewers. But, owing chiefly to Grogan’s source material, it also has an honest narrative backbone. This means story twists that, just like in real life, are sometimes painful — a miscarriage, a fairly late change of scenery — story twists that wouldn’t be tolerated in an originally produced screenplay. (You can practically hear the studio executive doing a spit-take: “A miscarriage?! Can’t we just have some more dog stuff… maybe some unexpected puppies?”) Frankly, I’m thrilled that all these things — as well as John’s wistful, nice-guy jealousy at Sebastian’s ascendant career arc and bachelor lifestyle — are included. They make the film what it is: deeper, more substantive, honest, and real. This is a film that happens to be rated PG, but can play to almost any age, and that happens to be somewhat about a dog, but isn’t just for dog lovers.
Other stuff that works well includes Alan Arkin — fantastic as Arnie Klein, John’s ascerbic editor — and Dane, who reduces the boil of his smarmy Grey’s Anatomy lothario to a mild simmer, to nice effect. Wilson and Aniston each do their thing as well; they make a believable, suitably charming couple, and nicely play the moments of familial drama and bickering, too. Commercially, Marley & Me has been embraced quickly out of the gate, and it’s not hard to see why, given the money pumped into its charm offensive, consisting of all those adorable posters, billboards and bus ads. But it’s a solid piece of Hollywood studio filmmaking, and those that took a pass on it thinking it was “only” a dog movie would do well to reconsider their first reaction. (20th Century Fox, PG, 123 minutes)