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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Marley & Me (review)

A Dog’s Life

This is not what I was expecting. I was expecting maybe yet another soulless and unromantic romantic comedy with the dog in the role of the guy’s outrageous best friend, and there would be much enlisting of the pup’s adorableness to woo the girl. I was expecting maybe yet another family-friendly slapstick-fest about a “wacky” canine — probably there would be the enforced goofiness of a silly-hat-wearing montage smack in the middle of it, when the Little Rascals-approved gang of kids dress up the mutt just before he goes on a neighborhood rampage during which he would certainly tear up old Mrs. Mulligan’s flowerbed… again.

But that’s not what Marley & Me is — not at all. It’s something so much more betterer.
It’s not even really about the dog, actually. Well, it is, and it isn’t. It’s about human life with a dog. It’s like My Dog Skip, except that instead of being about a little kid who grows up alongside a dog, it’s about grownups who grow together alongside a dog. And it actually is really about real life, not fake movie life. Marley & Me doesn’t have to force any of its sentiment because all the emotional moments — the happy ones and the sad ones and the angry ones and the unexpected ones — spring from an honest assessment of how wonderful and upsetting and frustrating and surprising life can be.

The sentiment? I’ll say it: I bawled. And not just at the end of the movie. It’s impossible not to see how it’s going to end when you realize this story will span the dog’s entire life, from puppyhood through doggie old age, about 12 years. In the space of about 18 months recently, I lost five pets, all from old age, so you may want to take my reaction with a grain of salt, if you haven’t shared your life with animals, or as a warning, if you have. Marley & Me is heartbreaking, but in that good, mindful, circle-of-life way.

There’s poignant stuff all throughout the film, though. I teared up during one rapid-fire mosaic of life with Marley that was neither particularly sad nor joyous in what it depicted but moved me with its beautiful portrait of life concentrated into a list of things we do, but also made more than the sum of that list, too. See, newspaper writer John Grogan (Owen Wilson: The Darjeeling Limited, Night at the Museum) and his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston: The Break-Up, Derailed), have just moved to Miami in 1991 as the movie opens. They’ve bought a house, they’ve both got new jobs at rival newspapers, they’re settling in. And then they get Marley, a rambunctious golden lab puppy who quickly turns into a small rampaging yellow pony.

John switches from working as a reporter to working as a columnist. Holidays and birthdays come and go. Life continues apace. And along comes this rapid-fire mosaic to push the story forward, presided over by a clipped list — “wrote a column about this,” “wrote a column about that,” “Marley did this bad thing,” “Jen did that good thing,” “we all fell down” — that, with Wilson’s natural cheekiness and the smart put-togetherness of director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), becomes both wiseass and wise at the same time.

In many ways, in fact, Marley & Me — based on the book by the real John Grogan [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] of collected columns about his own life, nattily adapted by Scott Frank (The Lookout) and Don Roos (Happy Endings) — is thematically very similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s just about the stuff we do that makes up our lives — though this one is bright and bouncy instead of solemn and reflective. There’s no time to be reflective when the damn dog is pulling down the blinds in the living room again.

They tell us that life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and that’s pretty much Marley & Me in a nutshell… or a dog bowl. The wild, misbehaving, impossible-not-to-love-him-even-when-he’s-driving-you-crazy dog is merely the instrument of that chaos. There’s an early attempt by the Grogans to train the chaos out of Marley, but it doesn’t take, and honestly, why would they have wanted it to? The chaos is what makes Marley worth living with, what turns the banality of everyday life into something that, for John Grogan, was worth writing about, and for us, is worth peering in on.


MPAA: rated PG for thematic material, some suggestive content and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Wow.

    I’m not convinced to see this movie, but your review gives me a whole different interpretation of it than the trailer did. I’m just not an animal fan, and I’m finding Jennifer Aniston increasingly irritating. But, maybe I’ll catch it on cable sometime.

  • Johnathan

    Same here… I think Aniston ruined it for me. I loved this book but I can’t picture these two in the starring roles. I also feel Aniston is irritating.. I may catch it on Cable when it is on but I will not fork over money to see this. Love dogs but this movie will not work for me

  • MaryAnn

    I’m not a fan of Aniston’s either, but she didn’t annoy me here.

  • Barry Turley

    Nobody seems to get the subtle nuances of this film. The best scenes aren’t mentioned in the reviews.

    When John takes Marley in to the vet the first time for his gastric disorder, he tries to explain to the vet that this is not your ordinary dog…which really means this is MY dog and you need to realize how much this dog means to me (this is where I started crying).

    Then, near the end, Jennifer Aniston delivers her best love scene in any movie she’s been in. John puts Marley in the back of the minivan and she hugs and kisses Marley so sweetly…something I recalling doing to my golden prior to our putting him down. Yes, this movie is meant to pull at our heartstrings, but it does it in an unsentimental way and a life affirming way.

  • Newbia

    MaryAnn, I really do not appreciate the enormous spoiler that you put in your review. Now the movie may be ruined for me. Even if it is totally obvious to you, it’s not obvious to everyone. Please edit your review to warn future readers that there is a spoiler.

  • Shadowe

    I actually had a semi-good feeling about this movie from the commercials. The clips they showed didn’t seem like any of the rom-coms or animal movies Hollywood normally churns out.

  • MaryAnn

    I really do not appreciate the enormous spoiler that you put in your review.

    Something that is obvious from the opening minutes of the film is not a spoiler. The ending is absolutely not a surprise. And understanding that this is the ending that is coming is essential to appreciating what this film is, and what it isn’t.

  • sally brown

    way to go MaryAnn!!

  • I allowed a female friend to talk me into seeing this and I really really wish for her sake that I can agree with you, MaryAnn. But I don’t. And not because I don’t sympathize with pet owners. (After all, my best friend is a pet lover and so is the woman I saw this movie with.)

    But that’s not what Marley & Me is — not at all. It’s something so much more betterer.

    Well, it’s more ambitious than the average “bit with a dog in it.” But betterer? Not from my viewpoint. Indeed, it’s all I can do to refrain from calling it “Crazy/Beautiful for pet owners.”

    And it actually is really about real life, not fake movie life.

    At least, that’s what it wants to be. But the aim and the achievement are two different things. The script relies way too much on the old “tell, not show” technique of script-writing, which explains why the audience gets endless glimpses of the dog destroying property that Owen and Jen’s characters could probably ill afford to pay for but far fewer glimpses on how such destruction affects their lives and their finances.

    SPOILER

    (Plus, it’s kinda unrealistic to pretend that everyone with a destructive pet has the option of asking their boss for a raise whenever it’s needed.)

    And even the few attempts at realism–the “novel” revelation that marriage is hard work and so–surprise, surprise–is childrearing–don’t quite come off like they should. Granted, no one goes into a film like this expecting Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage but still…

    There’s an early attempt by the Grogans to train the chaos out of Marley, but it doesn’t take, and honestly, why would they have wanted it to?

    SPOILERS

    Considering what the dog does to other people in the course of this movie–disturbing the heck out of that poor dog-sitter, humiliating that dog-trainer, ruining a beach outing for all the more responsible pet owners on that beach–do you really have to ask that?

    Owen and Jen make a cute couple, but their characters’ failure to raise their pet in a responsible manner doesn’t make them all that sympathetic.

  • MaryAnn

    (Plus, it’s kinda unrealistic to pretend that everyone with a destructive pet has the option of asking their boss for a raise whenever it’s needed.)

    When does that happen? Grogan receives a raise, it’s true, but he doesn’t ask for it and it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog.

    And even the few attempts at realism–the “novel” revelation that marriage is hard work and so–surprise, surprise–is childrearing–don’t quite come off like they should.

    But when do Hollywood movies *ever* deal with these things? The scene in which Jen acknowledges how frustrated she is is startling because we just don’t see things like that.

    their characters’ failure to raise their pet in a responsible manner doesn’t make them all that sympathetic.

    But do they fail to raise their pet in a responsible manner, or is Marley’s personality simply beyond training? Does there not come a point at which training saps all personality from a dog? I’m not saying no one should train their pets — I’m saying that these people loved their dog as he was, including his destructiveness.

  • Greg

    I just returned from seeing the movie, and returned immediately home and hugged my 18 month old puppy (and as I write this message, heard head is in my lap). I’m not ashamed that I cried greatly during the movie knowing the unconditional love my dog brings to my life and knowing that someday (hopefully not for many years) she will depart. Tonio, since you are a not a dog owner, perhpas you don’t fully understand the simple joy a devoted dog brings to one’s world. Marley & Me celebrates that even with troubles and frustations the rewards we get in return from a loving dog are boundless.

  • Joshua

    Oh, good gracious, I’ve never commented on here before, but here goes:

    [Spoilers Galore!]

    First of all, I know it’s sort of old hat to pull the old “it’s not like the book” thing, but still: this is a relatively pale imititation of the story Grogan originally told. I had a lot of problems with how they adapted this for the screen, but the biggest ones are….

    1) The sequence wherein the neighbor girl gets attacked. In the book, this is a novel-esque turning point. Marley, who’s never even met this young girl before, sits with her, keeping watch as it were, and Grogan has this whole ‘realization’ of what a great dog he has–destructive tendancies of said pooch be damned. Not only did the movie gloss over this point, but it cut it out, completely.

    2) The ending. Good lord. The whole emotional crux of the book is reached after Marley’s death, when Grogan begins to receive letters from fans of his column, telling their own ‘bad dog’ stories. It serves as a life-realization, in much the same way the above example does, but in a much, much more poignant fashion. Again, the movie cuts this, completely.

    I know, I know, I can’t judge the movie (or I shouldn’t, rather) by the source material, but, rather, on its own terms. This adaptation, though, just struck me as particularly corner-cutting.

    It was a good flick. But it could have been great.

  • christine

    This movie came at a good time in my life. I had to put my dog down this summer he was 14 years old and I don’t remember life before him (we got him when I was four). I can’t even describe in words the pain of loss like this is to me but this novel and movie have helped me move on. My dog wasn’t like marley but he had a different personality than any dog I’ve ever met like marley did. I thank the director for showing the whole life of marley not just the happy young years but the painful senior year. For a film it really captured the emotion of having that once-in-a-lifetime dog. My brother his girlfriend and myself did cry during the end of the movie, it brought back the memories of putting my dog sandy down. I have to say that if you are expecting a family friendly funny movie then this movie is not for you. There are scenes of sexual content and a few swear words and johns best friend is basically a whore, so these might not be good scenes for eight years olds! I kinda laughed when I would see a lot of little kids going into the movie all excited to see marley and me and then they would come out crying or depressed.

  • jason

    I read this book, I am not sure about watching the movie in fear of it taking away from the book.

    I fear that Wilson and Anniston are not like the Grogans at all. John did not come off as a funny guy and his wife seemed pretty normal…not something Anniston seems like she can play. Plus how can you have a trained dog play marley…is it possible???

    I will wait til it hits DVD then check it out…plus this way I can cry at home not in the theater ;-)

  • Joe

    Ok, I am quite young for this argument about spoiling it and what not, but the movie is out there for the fans of the book. It’s not like Anaconda or some crap movie that fell from the sky. It is a well written novel and the movie is just a comedy for all the people that are smart enough to read. Jeniffer Aniston played a superb role in this movie, i give her a round of applause. Please just look at the movie with a smile and dont be stuck up about, if i was a critic i would give it a 4.5/5

  • Grogan receives a raise, it’s true, but he doesn’t ask for it and it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog.

    Okay, true, but he also manages to move from a relatively inexpensive neighborhood to one of the most crime-free–and expensive–neighborhoods available. On a newspaperman’s salary.

    Even Roger Ebert–who undoubtedly has some experience with newspapers–found some of the stuff related to Owen’s character’s newspaper job to be unrealistic. And no, it wasn’t because he was disappointed at the lack of an Angelina Jolie cameo.

    But when do Hollywood movies *ever* deal with these things? The scene in which Jen acknowledges how frustrated she is is startling because we just don’t see things like that.

    I had the impression that in the wake of American Beauty, there’ve been quite a few movies that have dealt with such things. Marriage, for example. True, we don’t see such scenes all that often in dog movies, but then again, this movie didn’t deal with said scene in a convincing manner. Or at least in a manner that convinced me.

    But do they fail to raise their pet in a responsible manner, or is Marley’s personality simply beyond training? Does there not come a point at which training saps all personality from a dog?

    This is obviously going to be another point where you say to-may-to and I say to-mah-to. Too bad I don’t own a pair of roller skates…

    Anyway, the movie never established to my satisfaction that they had done all they could to train the dog. And even if they did, I felt much too sorry for all the other people affected by the dog’s behavior to feel much sympathy for this viewpoint.

    SPOILERS

    And, yes, it was sad when the dog got older and he seemed not long for this world. But a lot of sentiment induced by those scenes seemed unearned. As if the producers just wanted to make a funny dog movie and then added the other stuff to keep the fans of the original book happy.

    As for the notion I would have been more sympathetic if I had been a pet owner:

    I liked the recent Lassie movie quite well and I have no problem recommending it to people.

    I just have a problem with this movie.

    And I doubt that would change if I got a dog tomorrow. After all, I once recommended My Dog Skip to a dog-owning friend on the strength of your review and she thought it was only so-so. So not even dog-owners always agree on the merits of a film that “has a bit with a dog in it.”

  • Randal

    My compliments on the perspectives of your review. I was into a trip to this movie for the laughs since we have a young yellow lab pup who is a handful. I did know that it had a sad ending. I was fully surprised, as you though, to find a pretty thoughtful film here. It is far from flawless, but the life’s journey and circle of life themes rang true. I found it a nostalgic look back at my own life to date. This movie definately shares a bit of the reference to the “rollercoaster” metaphor from Ron Howard’s Parenthood.

    I have never been a fan of Jennifer Aniston’s work, but this is a considerably different role for her. Her performance has respectable integrity…and she looks wonderful with some maturity. You are exactly right about Owen Wilson; where he lacks romantic lead qualities, he delivers everyman qualities. It works very well here, and I’m glad to see him back. I was also moved by how the kids stepped up nicely in the last act to provide very realistic family perspective and scale relative to their young lives when pets remind and teach us of mortality.

    Nice flick with some heart. Forget the book for a couple of hours and enjoy a good little film. Cheers.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Saw it this weekend. I’d recommend it. Someone above said that the movie didn’t establish the emotion of the ending. Maybe it didn’t for people that don’t own dogs, come to think of it. A pet owner can pretty well fill in the blanks and get the full impact of the ending.

    I can attest that some dogs are unruly and difficult to train, though mine is much more manageable than Marley. I empathized with the owner coping with some of the antics: no knowledge of the concept of “heel” and pooping as an exhibitionist artform, to name two. Seems to me that the most intelligent and affectionate dogs are often the wildest. Maybe it’s akin to smart kids often getting low marks in conduct.

    Jennifer Aniston demonstrated she can play a character other than Rachel Greene, which made me happy because I always want to like her. The kids were just kids, not precocious brats or precious moppets.

    I did wonder how a journalist afforded a big house w/ pool in Boca. I haven’t read the book, so I didn’t know what’s real and what’s Hollywood in the movie. Who knows, maybe they went to Countrywide for the mortgage. I let it slide. Point was they gave up the urban lifestyle for the ‘burbs – one more step toward “ordinary” and one more perceived sacrifice.

  • Nik Rowley

    okay, I didn’t even read your whole review on this one, so I hope you didn’t miss a crucial point here:

    Did you mention that they actually show putting down the dog at the end of the film?

    If not, I wouldn’t be recommending this to just about anyone. If you’ve gone through this, you must know how hard it is to watch your dog die…why would the filmakers do that to an audience?

    I didn’t even see this film, just heard about it, but couldn’t they have glossed over that segment a little bit? I’m all for realism in movies, but that’s just unnecessary…

  • Jessica

    My boyfriend cried watching this movie…
    So far I have read from the reviews so did many other guys… Not a lot of movies do that to guys…
    I am tired of seeing people die in a movie…
    it’s something that we see so often we have gotten used to it.
    Marley and Me exposed something that not a lot of people express in real life.Not all people share the love for dogs. And for people to see a movie that actually expresses the way they feel about there own dog is just overwelming. I can’t go to a friend and talk an entire day about my dogs because HEELLLOO thay just dont care!!! And Grogan expresses this via newspaper everyday,everything Marley does and how it effects his life.When you get a dog you know and expext the dog to last 15 to 20yrs at the most, but you never expect the impact it has on you. My dogs are everything to me…

    Some people might think that dogs are just pets…
    But sometimes those pets are more understanding than any humane.

    Marley is a great movie. For dog lovers. those who haven’t had the pleasure to at least of had a pet will find the movie annoying probably and are not to criticize because you do not feel what dog owners do.

  • dawn

    i read the book which i found very very good, the film was disappointing, i thought jenifer aniston didnt show the affection that was portrayed in the book, and so much was missed out of the film, and the bit where it kinda fast ‘forwarded’ was wrong.
    Marley deserved better characters for the leading human roles, john grogens book Marley and me was absulotely brilliant, and the film does not give him the credit he deserves

  • Rebecca

    I had a dog which I lost to old age, she was sixteen! Marley and Me really shows what you go through when you have a dog.

  • Pedro

    The poster irks me. The fact that both leads are pretty blonde Arians irks me. And bits I have seen irk me.

    And yet…Marley might as well have been my own dog, who – incidentally – is 12 years old now. And a golden Labrador, as well.

    My mother says that the book is not worth reading because “why would I want to read a story about someone else’s dog who is similar to our own dog?!” Maybe the movie will convince her?!

  • beth and farah

    the film was great !

  • Mira

    I just saw this movie last night, and I was very disappointed a) with how long the movie was and b) how BORING the movie was. The only events that advanced the plot were: a) the dog did something cute/sad/funny/whatever and b) the wife got pregnant… again…

    Marley is really not the main focus of the movie, and maybe that’s for the best (there’s only so many times you can show the dog-ripped-up-house scenario), but in that case the movie should have just been called “Me” because all it’s about is the perfect life of an actor with a perfect tan, perfect blonde surfer hair, a perfect uber-wife who perfectly complains, and a perfect house.

    The fact that the couple is so terrible at training their dog definitely says something about their parental ability, doesn’t it? (Their kids have no souls!)

    There are so many inconsistencies and massive plot-holes in this movie it makes my head spin.

    1) The characters never seem to age. Even when the guy talks about how it’s terrible getting old (God forbid an actor turn 40 and become unattractive) and he still doesn’t look a day older than the way he was at the start of the movie.

    2) Despite the fact that Jenny had three kids, she never put on any weight, nor did she have the changes of a normal mother’s body to show it.

    3) There is a giant plot-hole regarding the guy’s job, I described it to my brother as “so big that the length of it could wrap around the Milky Way Galaxy nine-thousand times and then some.”

    4) At first, I was confused about the third child (the girl), because there was basically one scene involving her and she was an unimportant plot device the rest of the movie.

    Some people may disagree with me here, but the scene in the hospital where the guy goes into a “tear-jerking” rant about how his dog is “special” was corny and induced nausea, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t because of the popcorn. EVERYONE thinks their pet/spouse/kid/whatever is special and can do anything.

    The only thing that I can commend the movie for is for having a great ending. I liked this ending for four reasons:

    1) It was emotional.
    2) It was the only realistic part in the movie about having a pet – it has to die eventually
    3) It ended the movie (thank God)
    4) It completely eliminated the chances of there ever being a sequel, EVER.

  • Pedro

    Watched it last night, me and the girls. We laughed and cried and enjoyed the movie. But there are some easy nitpicks to be made:

    1 – the kids age properly, yet the perfect blond couple remains perfect and blond and fit and unwrinkled the whole way through. 14 years, three motherhoods, and Jennifer Aniston gains nothing apart from a ridiculously small fake belly? Come on!

    2 – For people who actually own a Labrador, it’s easy to see where the producers switch dogs. The first adult one they use is not even pure-breed, its tail arches where a “real” Lab’s sticks out straight behind him. The second is more “muscular” and the third is just ugly.

    3 – These people’s problems with Marley derive from a simple fact: THEY’RE TERRIBLE TRAINERS. I mean, they arrive home, the dog has wrecked it, and what do they do? They LAUGH AND PET IT!!! And then they are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – when the dog turns out that way…

    4 – No way that best friend guy would get as many chicks. When he’s approaching a couple of women on the street, most likely they’d ignore him or scoff (or even defense-spray his ass) instead of friggin’ INTRODUCING THEMSELVES!! That’s not how things work in real life.

    Other than that, enjoyable movie.

  • Axe

    i loved the movie,it makes me think twice on weather i should have a dog,cause i don really want to have that particular feeling of the lost of something precious,a gift.

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