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Dustin Putman

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Marley & Me  (2008)
3½ Stars
Directed by David Frankel.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Dane, Alan Arkin, Nathan Gamble, Finley Jacobsen, Haley Bennett, Kathleen Turner, Haley Hudson, Ann Dowd, Lucy Merriam.
2008 – 115 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic material, some suggestive content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 12, 2008.
A faithful adaptation of John Grogan's best-selling memoir, "Marley & Me" details the highs and lows of a married couple, and the beloved, rambunctious family pet that became a vital part of their lives. This perceptive slice-of-life could have easily gone in the opposite direction and turned out maudlin and artificially sweetened, but director David Frankel (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada") and screenwriters Scott Frank (2007's "The Lookout") and Don Roos (2005's "Happy Endings") are working at a higher level than most mainstream filmmakers. Their treatment of this subject matter is tough and realistic, but also commercially viable. Best of all, the themes touched upon—about the unpredictability of career and family, and the natural processes of living and dying—are always truthful and certainly universal. You don't have to be a dog lover to be touched to tears by "Marley & Me," you only need to be human.

Upon marrying, moving to warm and sunny West Palm Beach, Florida, and procuring jobs at different newspaper publications, journalists John (Owen Wilson) and Jennifer Grogan (Jennifer Aniston) take the next logical step: adopting a puppy. Marley is an adorable yellow Lab, but his zestfulness frequently translates to destruction and unruliness. When they take him to obedience school, he gets kicked out during the first class. When there's a storm, he's apt to go berserk and chew on everything in sight. He does the latter anyway. As the years go by, the family grows, and priorities change—John and Jennifer have three kids, and Jennifer ultimately chooses to quit her columnist job in exchange for being a stay-at-home mom—Marley, older and wiser himself, remains their one constant. John describes Marley in narration as "the world's worst dog," but he says it with affection and love; he wouldn't have it any other way.

The television ads that have been running for "Marley & Me" are laughable in their misrepresentation. For a motion picture about a cute dog opening on Christmas Day, studio 20th Century Fox would like to hoodwink viewers into believing this will be a lighthearted, fun-filled romp for the whole family to go see after they've opened presents and eaten their holiday feast. Even the PG rating suggests that this is kid-friendly entertainment. "Marley & Me" is a terrific film, one of the most surprisingly affecting and resonant to come out during this awards-contending season, but it isn't for little children. Less about a dog's wacky antics and more about how a pet can become a meaningful—and then fleeting—part of a family's life, it will be adults and teens who will be more equipped to understand and appreciate the story's messages.

Director David Frankel stays accurate to author John Grogan's story, never pandering to a certain audience or straining for cuteness. When it's cute, as when Marley only half-succeeds at exiting a moving vehicle, it's naturally so. Frankel takes seriously the strong script by Scott Frank and Don Roos, bringing humor and authentic gravitas to what, in essence, is a dramedy about a husband and wife whose lives travel in directions impossible to predict, but whose mutual love—even when they hate each other—prevails. When John and Jennifer go away on vacation and leave Marley with a quickly harried babysitter (Haley Hudson), the results are very funny, and when the two of them start to sense a distance after their second, and then third, child is born, it feels real. Jennifer's decision to give up her career for her kids is one that she wants to make, but she has no idea how tough it is really going to be. Her increasing weariness, as with John's confusion over a job position—from reporter to daily columnist—he never planned, as with all of the arguments that arise in between, are treated with an organic honesty far removed from most Hollywood scripts' strained crises and false portrayals of romantic relationships.

Spanning a roughly fourteen-year period (1991-2005), "Marley & Me" chronicles the evolution of an ordinary family unit while doing a subtle but fair job of conveying a certain time and place. Talk of Desert Storm and the opening credits being scored to R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" kickstart the film, and as the narrative progresses so do the cars, the music and technology. One sequence—a fast-cut montage lasting about five minutes in length and narrated by John—depicts a full year in the lives of John and Jennifer, a sort of greatest hits of the events that lead them toward being twelve months older. It's a breathtaking scene, so dizzying and encompassing that one wonders how director David Frankel managed to shoot all that footage in addition to the rest of the movie. Cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (2008's "Definitely, Maybe"), contrasting the beachy warmth of Florida with the seasonal eclecticism of Pennsylvania, is picture-perfect.

The supporting ensemble is peripheral in importance, but stays with the viewer. Alan Arkin (2008's "Get Smart") is a hoot as Sun-Sentinel editor-in-chief Arnie Klein, able to bust a gut laughing without cracking a smile, and Eric Dane (TV's "Grey's Anatomy") intriguingly brings an unspoken subtext to his reading of John's skirt-chasing best friend and coworker Sebastian Tunney. In his brief scenes, Nathan Gamble (2007's "The Mist") is touching as the Grogans' eldest son, Patrick. Actorwise, though, the film belongs to Owen Wilson (2008's "Drillbit Taylor") and Jennifer Aniston (2006's "The Break-Up"), building upon and embracing their complicated but sincere relationship as couple John and Jennifer. Wilson and Aniston, full of chemistry, are both highly adept at delivering comedic and dramatic performances, and so it stands to reason that they would be nothing less than superb here as they get the chance to play both sides of the emotional coin.

When the setting relocates north during the third act and the first signs of Marley's aging becomes apparent—he pauses for a few moments before making his way up the front porch steps—it is the start of a finale that audiences unfamiliar with the book will not be anticipating. While the conclusion will not be given away in full, one can probably guess where a film is headed that is all about the bittersweet passage of time and the lingering imprint our pets and family members have on us. Usually, blatant manipulation and overly obvious ploys for sympathy are things that turn me off, but the characters in "Marley & Me" had involved me so much by this point that it wholeheartedly worked its cathartic spell. Director David Frankel refuses to shy away from the harder moments and let the audience off the hook. His candidness is appreciative, but will be too much for impressionable young ones to handle. Full admission: by movie's end, so many tears had been uncontrollably shed that my eyes were red and my face felt puffy. And I'm more of a cat person.

"A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor. You give him your heart and he'll give you his." These words, spoken by John, are at the epicenter of what the one-of-a-kind relationship is like between a canine and his owner. As John, Jennifer and Marley are faced with coming to terms with the inevitable—there is a lovely, poignant moment shot at sunset where John tells Marley to let him know when the time comes to say good-bye—the picture builds to an impassioned and deeply moving payoff. The film is not sad for sad's sake, however; it's actually quite life-affirming, leading the viewer to reassess how important and valuable his or her own loved ones are. "Marley & Me" is this decade's answer to 1983's "Terms of Endearment." It might even be a little better.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman