Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Marley & Me

I walked into Marley & Me expecting a movie about a cute little dog who makes a lot of trouble for his family. While I certainly got that, I also got something else - A very mature, honest, and adult drama about creating a family. Of course, I was expecting this as well, as I had read the acclaimed autobiographical novel by John Grogan that the film is based on. (Having read the book, I had some Kleenex at hand, knowing how it ended.) The studio's ad campaign is selling this movie as a "fun for the whole family" holiday event, and while kids are certain to enjoy the antics of Marley the dog, I have a feeling that accompanying adults will walk away from this movie with a lot more than kids will.

The movie faithfully follows the original story, and successfully manages to cover 13 years or so in the life of Grogan into a film that runs just a little over two hours. John is portrayed in the film by Owen Wilson, giving one of his better and more nuanced performances of late. When we first meet him, he's still in the honeymoon phase with his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston). The two have a lot of hopes for the future (both in terms of career and their life together), and even have a list made up of everything they want to accomplish in their lives. They move to South Florida, they both get jobs working for different newspapers, and they want to start a family. John figures the best way to start a family is to get a dog, and surprises his wife for her birthday by taking her out to a local breeder to pick a yellow lab puppy. The dog they choose is cheaper than the rest of the litter, and they think nothing of it until it's too late. Little Marley (as John names him) is a home wrecker with a bottomless pit for a stomach, the ability to break through screen doors in a single bound, and put terror into the hearts of dog trainers and dog sitters everywhere.

The Grogans hold onto the little destructive yellow ball of fur because beneath his bad boy exterior, they know he has a heart of gold and supports them in their weaker moments, such as during their initial failed attempt to have children. A family soon comes for John and Jennifer (two boys and a girl), and this is when I started to be reminded of why I enjoyed the original novel so much. Marley & Me is not just a "funny dog" story, it is mainly a story about maturity, the trials of a relationship, and the joys and sorrows of family. Life obviously does not work out the way the couple planned early on. John's boss at the paper (Alan Arkin, in a wonderfully dry comic role) gives him the job of being a columnist instead of being a real reporter. Though he finds success with his column, John quietly grows envious of his co-workers covering real stories, such as his best friend Sebastian (Eric Dane), who does freelance and eventually full-time work for the New York Times. As for Jennifer, she quits her job to be a full-time mother, and goes through the phases of stress and depression as she feels overwhelmed. The struggles and doubts of the Grogans makes up as much of the story as Marley's antics.

That's because the screenplay by Scott Frank (The Interpreter, Minority Report) and Don Roos (Single White Female) manages to avoid the manipulative and cute approach, and gives the movie an adult and honest perspective. Marley plays a big part in the story, and in his own way helps John face the responsibility of being a real adult and a parent, but the movie remembers that it's not all about him. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) successfully juggles the multiple themes and storylines, not letting one overpower the other. He also allows Marley to act like a real dog. I was grateful that there were no "cute" reaction shots, or attempts to make him seem like he knows more about what's going on than he does. He's just a wild, but loyal and friendly dog. I also appreciated the film's low key humor that comes out of real situations. Anyone who has owned a dog or had kids are sure to nod their heads many times throughout the movie. It constantly finds the right tone, even the later "tear-jerker" moments that come near the end, which I was thankful to find earns its tears truthfully instead of through heavy-handed manipulation.

Despite best being known for their comedic work, both Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston deliver some very strong dramatic work here. Wilson, in particular, is wonderful as a man who feels like he's constantly faced with things blocking his path the life he thinks he truly wants. His acceptance and realization about his life comes naturally, and mainly through his expressions and performance, instead of long-winded dialogue. As for Aniston, she's an actress who has never completely stood out for me in most of her past films, but she grabbed my attention here with her honest and heartfelt portrayal. She's very believable in how she tries to be supportive, while at the same time wanting more, just like her husband. Both do a wonderful job of portraying the couple at different stages in their lives and relationship. As for Marley, we buy into the illusion that we've been watching the same dog the entire time (he was actually portrayed by 22 different dogs in different stages of his life), and we come to love him for his faults just as the Grogans do.

Marley & Me is being advertised as fun for the whole family escapist holiday entertainment, but I think those expecting that will be surprised by just how much this movie holds. It's an intelligent and heartfelt look at family life, what it means, and what it can do if you're not ready for it. Not a single moment rings false, not even the moments when the movie plays up the dog for laughs. This is the rare film that can appeal to just about anyone, and is the very definition of a crowd pleaser.

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