Marley & Me, the most popular film in America over the holiday weekend, is an odd take on the contemporary family movie–and not only because Owen Wilson has more chemistry with man’s best friend than with co-star Jennifer Aniston. Based on a bestselling nonfiction book (subtitled Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog) Marley & Me is about the wacky adventures of a Labrador Retriever adopted as a puppy by two married journalists living in Florida. John Grogan (Wilson) sees the dog as a clever way to keep wife Jen (Anniston) at bay in her urge for children. The dog turns out to be a royal pain in the ass, of course–“Did he eat the drywall?”–and before you know it, Aniston is barefoot and preggers anyway. Three kids later, the dog’s antics (“now he’s eating the floor”) are no longer endearing to Jen, just annoying. Having abandoned her own journalism career to become a stay-at-home mom, Aniston transforms before our eyes from America’s sweetheart into America’s shrew, bitching at John the minute he walks through the front door.
And this what is so strange about Marley & Me. It has become standard in the age of Shrek for Hollywood family movies to include a layer of pop cultural references and arch jokes pitched solely at the parents in the audience. But director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) gives them instead what Slant‘s Nick Schrager has aptly called “a grating sitcom version of Revolutionary Road.” The moral of this dimension of the story is that all the personal sacrifices John and Jen make to raise their family are worth it in the end–even if it means sitting through inane matinee fodder like Marley & Me.
In one of the few positive reviews of the film I could find, Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek defends the movie’s anti-cute approach to its genre: “[it] works so well because the focus isn’t purely on Marley: We’re not reminded repeatedly how adorable he is, how expressive he is, how naughty he is. Marley just is — he’s allowed to be a dog.” And so too is Wilson. Fresh off a well-publicized suicide attempt (his 2007 overdose, not Drillbit Taylor) this was a smart career choice for The Butterscotch Stallion. The reigning shaggy dog actor of our time, he and the eight or nine pooches who play Marley at various ages share an obvious rapport. When Wilson frees Marley at a dog beach, telling him “you’ve been on a leash too long,” he seems to be expressing the tentative feelings of his fans. If Marley & Me is the price we must pay for Wilson to return to his former glory, then the movie is right about one thing. Some sacrifices are worthwhile.–Benjamin Strong