When I was a kid I was the nominal master of a chuckleheaded cocker spaniel, and with the eager, exasperated assistance of my parents I kept trying to teach him the rudiments of doggy discipline. You know heel, sit, do not turn into a drooling, quivering, mass of fur the first time you hear a clap of thunder 20 miles away. My grandfather, observing our unrelenting failures, was wont to remark, "You've got to be smarter than the dog..." which was, however truthful, not entirely helpful.
I thought of Grandpa as I was watching the mildly amusing, mildly annoying Marley and Me the other night. Marley is the eponymous figure in John Grogan's insanely best-selling book about trying to live in peace with a large, loveable and imbecilic Labrador, the success of which proved that millions of empathetic American readers have, like Grogan, utterly failed to become model dog whisperers. The book was based on the dozens of newspaper columns he wrote about Marley, which means that its strength lies in being anecdotal and chucklesome rather than narratively coherent. In order to rectify that defect for the movie version, the screenwriters Scott Frank and Don Roos have created a domestic drama out of the various crises Grogan (Owen Wilson) and his wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), endure while Marley overeats, overpoops, chews up the sofa, yanks them perilously along various beaches and sidewalks and, yes, howls at thunder. The dog may be the film's title character, but mainly he provides comic relief as everyone works their way through the standard crises of young married life.
John is ambivalent about his career he'd like to be a reportorial newspaperman, even though his real gift is as a humorous columnist. Jennifer, also a journalist, would like to stay in the newsroom, but her biological clock is ticking and rather-too-many children are soon crowding houses not designed for so many human beings not to mention the ever-rambunctious Marley. The result is a sort of big screen Brady Bunch, or perhaps something on the order of movie antiques like Yours, Mine and Ours wherein modest frustrations and inconveniences are salved by love and understanding. There's nothing wrong with this if you're just out for a comfy-cozy good time. On the other hand, there's nothing particularly right about it not in an economy that obliges us to carefully monitor the outlays of our discretionary entertainment dollars.
Then there's this other problem, which is our unfortunate propensity to outlive our pets. You can see that coming from the first minute adorable, galumphing Marley is glimpsed at the puppy farm. "That dog is bound to die before this picture is over," you say to your wary self. And as the story moves along you begin looking for the first telltale limp or languidness, which arrives, of course, when the Grogans, all domestic issues resolved, settle themselves into roomy and handsome old farm house with plenty of romp room for Marley right outside the front door. He, in turn, has become the faithful and beloved guardian of the children, most of his bad habits aged out of him.
Which means you'd better prepare yourself for the deluge. To his credit, the director, David Frankel, does not particularly pump up the sentiment as Marley prepares to meet his maker. And Wilson confronts the pooch's demise in a manly and dry-eyed manner. If you wanted to take this movie seriously, you'd have to observe that the dog's death is the final rite of passage his perpetually adolescent owner must endure. But let's not go there. I'll content myself by saying these sequences seemed to me to go on too long. I'll also admit that I seemed to feel the sting of tears welling up in my eyes as they transpired a damaging confession from a case-hardened movie reviewer. What it comes to is this: If you have your glucose intolerance issues under control, Marley and Me may be just your holiday ticket. If not, the multiplexes are currently offering more than enough self-conscious grimness to feed your inner Grinch.
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