'Marley' goes far beyond puppy love

Doggy tale's small touches explore the bond between man (and woman) and animal *** (3 stars)

December 25, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Anyone who snickers at talk of a dog's undying and unquestioning love, steer way clear of Marley & Me. But for all those enlightened souls who know just what I'm talking about, who have experienced the redemptive joy of coming home from a hard day at work feeling like the saddest sad sack in the universe, only to be greeted by a dog who just knows you're the best thing in the world, then this is the movie you've been waiting for.

It understands.

Based on the autobiographical book by newspaper columnist John Grogan, Marley & Me's plot is simplicity itself: It's about a newly married couple who buy a dog, then spend the next 13 years together with him.

Aspiring journalist Grogan (Owen Wilson) buys the dog for his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), ostensibly to take her mind off wanting to have kids. Faced with a basket full of adorable Labrador puppies, Jennifer picks the runt of the litter, a listless little thing who simply grabs her heart. Besides, the owner offers to let him go for $75 less than the other puppies.

The initial appearances, however, prove deceiving. Marley, named for the visionary Jamaican reggae singer, proves anything but listless; quickly, he develops into an uncontrollable force of energy. He runs when and where he wants, he eats when and where he wants, he chews when and where he wants, he slobbers when and where he wants. He even gets expelled from obedience school (Kathleen Turner has a hilarious turn as an obsequious trainer who insists, evidence to the contrary, that every dog wants to be controlled.)

Over the course of their years together, John, Jennifer and Marley have their share of adventures, but that's not really what Marley & Me is about. Instead, it's about the simple act of inviting an animal to share your life and marveling at how dependent you become on each other.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) wisely opts to focus not on life's big events, but on the little things. There's no one big adventure that cements the Grogans' relationship with Marley; instead, it's Marley's big heart and enduring loyalty that bonds them together. True, John and Jennifer show remarkable patience in the face of chewed furniture, swallowed necklaces, ripped screen doors and clawed floors. But then, isn't that what relationships are about: forgiving the bad while cherishing the good?

A mid-movie montage of adorable Marley moments drags on a bit too long, and Eric Dane is wasted as John's pal, a womanizing, globe-trotting New York Times journalist meant to represent everything John sacrifices by settling into his job (as a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, later as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer) and his life as a husband and father. Then again, the film wisely keeps its non-Marley moments to a minimum.

It's in the small touches when Marley, both the film and the dog, really shines. When Jennifer suffers a miscarriage and breaks down on the couch, sobbing uncontrollably, Marley quietly rests his head on her leg. When the Grogans finally do have a child and bring him home, Marley, for whom the world has always been one big chew toy, suddenly becomes both kid-friendly and kid-protective. The movie simply lets such moments happen, without excessive buildup or fanfare.

Wilson, who has never made the film in which he convincingly played sincere, turns out to be a wise choice to play John Grogan; we can watch his relationship with Marley grow, their bond strengthen. If a dog can break down Wilson's defenses, what chance does any mere mortal have?

The movie's final 30 minutes, during which Marley gradually succumbs to the inevitable ravages of old age (and during which he struggles to soldier on, as if nothing is wrong), is a tear-jerker of the first order; during a packed preview screening last week, the sobbing as the end approached couldn't be stifled, no matter how hard people tried. The woman in the seat next to mine was crying so loud, I was afraid people would think it was me. I swear, my handkerchief was only out because I've been fighting a cold the past few days.

But I did give my dog, Foxy, a huge hug the minute I got home. She didn't mind.

Marley & Me

(20th Century Fox) Starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Dane. Directed by David Frankel. Rated PG for suggestive content and heartbreak. Time 120 minutes.

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