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.

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