Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Marley & Me" (2008)

Starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and Eric Dane
Written by Scott Frank and Don Roos
Directed by David Frankel
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Rated PG - Language, dramatic themes

I know a lovely young woman who I call "Smalls" and she and I disagree on one pretty particular topic: dogs.  I don't really care for them.  They make me uncomfortable.  Smalls, on the other hand, I don't think could live without her puppy.  When I initially rented "Marley and Me" I mentioned it to her, thinking she'd have one reaction, but got another: she told me it was one of the most painful movies she'd ever experienced.

Of course, I didn't understand this, since it was labeled as a comedy.

"Marley & Me," based on the book of the same name, is the story of John Grogan (Owen Wilson) and his wife Jenny (Jennifer Aniston).  They are newlyweds who move to the south of Florida, and both get jobs at newspapers.  Jenny wants to have a child, but John is reluctant, and instead surprises Jenny with a puppy named Marley.  They soon discover that Marley is trouble on four legs.

John begins to write a column about daily life for the paper, most of which seems to revolve around Marley's misadventures, which becomes extremely popular.  Jenny, meanwhile, still yearns to have a child, even as the two of them grow closer to the ever more destructive Marley. 

As the years pass, John and Jenny eventually do have children, outgrow their home, struggle to make ends meet, and more.  Through it all, they deal with their untrainable but lovable dog, Marley, who becomes as integral a part of the family as their own children.

What makes "Marley & Me" a struggle to get through is its wild tonal shifts.  About 90% of the film is mild, light-hearted comedy, with the occasional hard left into tragedy.  The first instance of this involves Jenny losing her first baby early in the pregnancy, which comes almost out of nowhere as the film delivers a solid sucker punch.  Up until this point, the film had mostly concerned itself with various misadventures such as Marley tearing up the house, getting away at the beach, eating everything from pet food to drywall, etc.  And then suddenly, it rears up and slogs you in the face. 

This is not the last time this will happen, but then the film veers right back into comedy and stays there until the film approaches the end.  Then it becomes an almost anguishing crawl toward the credits, and while this is all fine drama, it seems almost like watching two entirely different movies with the same cast and premise.  It's all very sad, and I admit that it got to me at the end, despite my feelings about dogs.

But while the drama is effective, it's a fairly minimal aspect of the movie in terms of how much time it actually takes up.  The rest of the film is so light and fluffy it's almost ridiculous.  Wilson and Aniston are fine in their roles, selling the love and frustrations of a young couple just starting out and their bond with the dog.  There's really not much else to say about it other than "fine;" nothing here is Oscar-worthy, nor outright terrible.  It's two solid actors doing solid work.  There are a few other supporting characters such as Eric Dane as John's journalist friend Sebastian and Alan Arkin as John's boss Arnie who provide some fun moments but ultimately don't amount to much. 

The film is broad, filling much of its runtime with Marley's troublesome hijinks.  But while that makes most of the movie easily digestible, when it does take turns for the serious, doing so feels out of place.  If you love dogs, there will be much to love and hate in this film.  If you don't love dogs, you'll likely find the film a frustratingly uneven, if entertaining, experience.

So I didn't have the same devastated reaction Smalls had; it's not likely I ever will.  "Marley & Me" certainly didn't want to make me rush out and get a dog, and it's not a film I'd ever seek out to experience again.  But... it was effective, in its own way.