The John Grogan portrayed by Owen Wilson is a newspaper columnist par excellence, who documents his middle-class marriage and family life (along with extreme canine misbehavior) and shares these experiences with readers who identify with his everyday struggles. The Marley & Me constructed by director David Frankel is conventional to the point of generic, a contemporary Norman Rockwell vision enlivened only by the eponymous dog, and the chaos he leaves in his wake.
John and wife Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) are so bland, their challenges so commonplace, that they need the anarchy of the Labrador retriever who will not be tamed (or shamed) to shake them out of their comfort zone. But in adapting the Detroit-born Grogan's best-selling 2005 memoir, screenwriters Scott Frank (a great interpreter of Elmore Leonard's novels) and Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) keep this exuberant dog on a very tight leash.
The newly married Grogans flee Michigan like snowbirds, steering their clunky Toyota Tercel toward warmer weather and journalism jobs (Jenny at The Palm Beach Post, John at The South Florida Sun-Sentinel). As in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Frankel's strength is portraying new hires finding their footing, and he has fun with this ambitious young couple, who casually bring a rambunctious puppy into their frenzied lives, not realizing the impact he'll have on them.
When the Grogans become parents, they slide headlong into white-collar American banality. Since their life feeds his column (including quality time with the mischievous Marley), John is in a constant state of quizzical rumination, leaving a frustrated Jenny to question his family commitment (and her own choices). But the steadfast Wilson and Aniston throw themselves into this down-to-earth relationship, even if the film is garden-variety.
What Marley & Me captures best is the lifespan of a dog, from an object to be purchased to a beloved family member worthy of a burial and eulogy. The filmmakers are clearly dog lovers, creating moments of canine-human connection that resonate deeply, including an achingly real depiction of the yellow Lab's final visit to the vet, and his owner's heartfelt last words to "the world's worst dog."
Focusing on the microcosm of family dynamics and career fulfillment instead of the macroeconomics of a new depression, Marley & Me has the feel of a quaint relic, especially now that the kind of daily newspaper that spawned this shaggy dog story is a dying breed.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].