Marley & Me (2008)
The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.
So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.
Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.
The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.
Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.
Nate’s Grade: B