Monday, December 29, 2008

Marley & Me / *** ½ (PG)

John Grogan: Owen Wilson
Jennifer Grogan: Jennifer Aniston
Sebastian: Eric Dane
Arnie Klein: Alan Arkin
Ms. Kornblut: Kathleen Turner

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Frankel. Written by Scott Frank and Don Roos. Based on the book by John Grogan. Running time: 120 min. Rated PG (for thematic material, some suggestive and language).

Our dog is a very important part of our family. Some of you may have read the “Confessions of a Movie Hound” columns she contributes to my blog site every once and a while. We talk to her, make fun of her, and play with her like she gives just as much to the family as any of us silly humans. And no mater how much she annoys us with her barking and nipping, her jumping on laps unsolicited, her passing of wind like some sort of new age art form, she is just as important as anyone of us. “Marley & Me” is a movie that understands this family dynamic.

Based upon the bestselling memoir by newspaper columnist John Grogan, “Marley & Me” is one of the best dog-based movies I have seen. This is because the movie isn’t really about the dog; it’s about the family. And it’s not some sappy feel good story about people who come to fully understand the purpose of life through the help of some benevolent four-legged friend. Yes, you can better understand the strength of their love and family bond through the story of how this dog became such and important part of their lives; but their lives have ups and downs, and their relationships with each other and the dog bend and yield and firm up and grow almost imperceptibly throughout the course of their lives together. Only in the end do you understand how much they all mean to each other.

Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) plays John Grogan and Jennifer Aniston (“The Break-Up”) plays his wife Jennifer. The story starts out on their snowy wedding day in Michigan and follows them to Miami and later to Philadelphia. We see them in their early writing careers and see John develop into a successful columnist despite the fact that he’d rather be a reporter like his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane, “Grey’s Anatomy”). It’s Sebastian who suggests to John that a new puppy might stave off Jennifer’s urges to have kids right away. And so John and Jennifer adopt a Yellow Lab pup and name him Marley because Bob Marley is playing on the radio on the way home from the puppy farm.

John frequently claims that Marley is “the world’s worst dog.” And to be sure, I wouldn’t want Marley as my own pet. He chews up everything—the pillows, moving boxes, the couch, the garage, the in-law’s chairs, the car seat belts, many leashes, and an expensive necklace that was meant to provide a release from the strain Marley has put on John’s and Jen’s relationship. He’s a large dog that runs at anything, often careening pieces of furniture into innocent bystanders. He’s even kicked out of obedience school by the otherwise formidable Ms. Kornblut (Kathleen Turner in a cameo appearance).

But Marley makes good humorous material for John’s column at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. After writing his first column about Marley, John is encouraged by his editor Arnie Klein to put as much of his personal life into his column as he can. The great Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) makes the rather small role of Klein into a funny and colorful break from John’s hectic home life.

Eventually John and Jennifer do have the kids despite Marley and learn the hard lesson that it does not get easier. And this is where “Marley & Me” really surprised me. I expected some cute “family” movie where we get to watch all the crazy things that Marley does to the people who call him theirs—the type of thing where the dog does something horrible and the two Hollywood stars look at each other, say “Aw Shucks!” and all is forgiven because they love their big ball of fur sooo much. But Marley is a real dog and also a real inconvenience most of the time. The emotions he drives John and Jennifer to are the real stresses of life rather than some Hollywood plot concoction.

Marley is hardly the even the main focus of the story. The dog is just one element of the lives that these two people have chosen to have together. They also have to deal with the problems of work and kids, homes and salaries, and just being able to get along when nothing seems to be going right. It is about how most things never really work out the way we plan or expect them to. Wilson and Aniston perform an act of bravery in their performances by dropping any semblance of on-screen “personalities” and give themselves up to the material. They deal with their problems without the performance tools of cleverness and quick wit. When they’re stung, it hurts.

But I fear that makes this sounds like an unhappy movie. It is a wonderful joy because there is so much to recognize from our own lives here. Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and his screenwriters Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) and Don Roos(“The Opposite of Sex”) capture an aspect of family life that is rarely explored in Hollywood movies. Nothing simply happens in this movie because the characters or the plot wishes it. All the joy and love in the Grogan family has to be achieved; it’s not just assumed.

Some may feel the movie has been mismarketed as a family movie because it isn’t the typical joke fest that ridicules the lives we all live. But it’s a family movie that deals with the realities of having a family and how the choices made by the parents are choices that must be lived with and dealt with by the family as a whole, including the choice of owning a large animal. You will be warned to bring some Kleenexes. These warnings should be heeded, but don’t let them deter you from bringing your children. They may find this movie helpful in dealing with some of the choices you’ve made.

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