Friday, May 22, 2009

Marley And Me (2008)

Animal movies tend to be awful, so the fact that Marley And Me is not - well it's not a great movie, but it's not achingly horrible, so that's a step in the right direction. Low expectations.

Owen Wilson's wistful, wry voice is the narration used to tie together this awkward film. Many films have trouble deciding what they are, but few suffer the essential confusion of Marley And Me. For starters, it is a memoir of a middle-class man's early adulthood, the choices he makes and the regrets he has. It therefore features mature themes and is not exactly a child-friendly work. But it is irresistible to children as it features a large, lovable dog. It should have been a warning to viewers that the book's publishers saw fit to produce a separate, child-friendly version once the original became a best-seller.

The narrator, the charming Owen Wilson, essentially acts the role of a child - playful, happy-go-lucky, irresponsible, prone to thoughtless blutterances and lacking focus. But he's not a kid - he has a wife, a house, a job, frustrated desires to be a serious journalist, etc. He buys a dog, on the advice of his utterly charmless underwear-model handsome BFF, a serious journalist, who advises him that a puppy will keep his new wife so occupied she will quit thinking about having a baby for a few more years. The early puppy scenes are undeniably fun - the entire audience awwwwed in unison at the first shot of the golden lab puppies spilling out of their box. This charm is almost entirely dissipated by a later scene where the reluctant couple takes their adolescent dog to a training class, does a half-ass job of trying to train him, and are rewarded when the dog humps the instructor's leg. Egregiously nasty, and just plain odd in tone. A similarly strange tone is set in the center of the film, where a Wilson voiceover gives us a summary of several years' worth of action as various shots filter past on the screen.

This has been a tremendously successful film, owing to the similarly sloppy-dog charm of Wilson and his canine costars. Wilson does a fine job as the central character who goes from an amiable newlywed to a family man approaching middle age. Jennifer Aniston does what she can with her role. The locations are genuine and novel - the suburbs of Miami and Philadelphia are places less often seen in films, and the realism of the film benefits from not looking like yet another location shot in L.A. or Chicago.

The owners are shown only once even trying to train the dog, and they are shown approaching training with mocking hostility. Undoubtedly, the real family did get a difficult dog for first-time owners - high energy, large, strong, stubborn. After you own a few dogs, and see a few problem dogs owned by good people, you start to realize that a lot of what passes for 'trained' dogs is really just good luck on the owners' parts. But the film really doesn't show them doing much of anything to control their dog - Jennifer Anniston is smaller than the dog, who repeatedly gets away, chases anything that moves, mounts other dogs, etc.

A cute movie, because the human and canine stars are likeable and attractive, but not a strong movie and not a good one. The power it does have comes entirely from the genre; dog stories are always tragedies, after all, and this is no exception. There is a moment in this film, toward the end, where Owen Wilson as John Grogan stands in a dark street, a cell phone to his ear, and discusses Marley's health with his wife, who is home with their children. It is realistic, it is painfully, agonizingly realistic, as the several weeping people in the audience could have doubtless attested.

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