Sometime around the middle of 2008 my sister brought my mother a book to read. It was one in a long line of animal and pet-themed books. This particular book was a very quick read for someone who is notorious for taking forever to get through a novel. The book made her laugh, it made her cry, and famously say: “Not in my house!” The book was Marley & Me. I did not know this at the time. Then some point after this, on one of many trips to the theater, I saw a teaser trailer that featured a yellow puppy running free, in slow motion of course, down a beach. In hot pursuit of said pup were Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, shouting “Marley!” That was it, the title came up and announced a Christmas release. Interesting.
As Christmas neared and the full trailer came out, I thought it looked like it could be fun and decided that I would see it. Even my mother said she wanted to see it (and she never goes to the movies); of course she has not yet made the journey. Despite her not seeing the film, she had no problem letting fly with this nugget: “The dog dies!” My mouth fell agape as I gasped, “Spoilers!” She looked at me like I had two heads. “I thought you knew,” she replied. I made a point of getting out before she let fly with any other pieces of wisdom.
It turns out that I needn’t worry, as I got some revealing poster images attached to a press release that revealed the same thing. At this point I stopped worrying about that knowledge, and now having seen the film, it is probably best to know. I have read about some upset people who thought they were in for a family comedy about a dog. Well, they got that and more. I guess the trailer could have played up a little bit more of the dramatic/sentimental side, but they didn’t and we are left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.
Marley & Me is based on the book by John Grogan, telling of his own personal experiences living with a pup named Marley. Marley is no family pet; he is a four-legged wrecking crew. I cannot imagine living with the dog portrayed in the film, even knowing that there are twenty-two dogs sharing the performance and that they are trained. I would not wish to experience the reality of Marley, ever. I swear, if I had a dog that was that destructive, he would not be in my care for very long.
The film opens just after John (Owen Wilson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) get married. Both of them are newspaper writers and they have just started their lives in the warm climate of Florida. John is unsure of his personal readiness to begin a family and on the advice of a co-worker (Eric Dane) gets a puppy — a bargain puppy at that. Remember that bargains are generally bargains for a reason; buyer beware.
The newly dubbed Marley reveals himself to be a whirlwind of destruction. Everything in, around, and near the house is a toy, food, or an enemy to be destroyed. Anything within the house gets chewed, smashed, mauled, or eaten, yet the Grogans love him anyway, sort of. Marley is the sort of dog that you have to love; he is not a mean dog, he doesn’t bite or growl and he knows just how to gaze up at you with unconditional love and make all the broken stuff go away.
Anyway, they get the bargain basement puppy, the fun begins, and John finds his writing career taking a turn. He is a low-level news reporter who finds himself offered a column, which he is rather wary of. Well, wary until his boss (Alan Arkin) offers to double his salary. Needless to say, in this writer’s dream, he takes the position. Needing something to write about, he turns to Marley, thus creating a column that becomes a hit (and leading to the real life creation of the film’s source material).
Marley goes a long way to driving the film forward, with John and Jennifer’s relationship taking the center stage. It is a genuine relationship with all of the love, hate, fights, make-ups, and drama that goes with it. It is spiced with humor and tempered with reality. They made a surprisingly effective screen couple in a film that exceeds what I was expecting.
I am not sure exactly what I was expecting. I was expecting some comedy with a good dose of sentimentality at the end. I got that and more. The characters were good, the drama was good, the comedy made me laugh, and the sad, dripping sentimentality got just a little bit misty. Yes, I do feel a little manipulated, but it still works. This is a movie that plays out like a cathartic experience for anyone who has lost a beloved pet. For those, Marley & Me becomes something more, an experience that one does not necessarily expect from a film that casts as wide a net as this.
This is not to say it is a great film; there is a lot that’s familiar, as well as a need for maybe a touch more depth. However, as familiar as so much of it seems, it is put together with skill; it takes the familiarity and uses it to great effect, drawing you in like a warm blanket. Sometimes familiarity is all you need.