(Note: Consider this a spoiler alert. The ending of "Marley & Me" was one of the worst-kept secrets of last Christmas, primarily thanks to the popularity of the book it was based on. But if you are not aware of the ending and would like to stay that way, click away now; that section is one of the few genuinely successful elements of the film, and this review will discuss why.)
You've got to give them this: those dogs are awfully cute. That's not an inconsiderable factor when discussing Marley & Me, which is, for most of its running time, the ultra-cutesy story of a family and its dog. It's also not much to hang your movie on; close-ups of cute puppies can only carry you so far, though the film's attempts to build subplots and conflict for its human stars will be met with a shrug by most viewers. We're here for the pooch, after all--a point proven by the surprising emotion and skill of the film's closing sequences. But later for that.
Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston play John and Jenny Grogan, a married pair of newspaper writers who are starting a new life in Florida. Jenny is already thinking about kids, but John isn't quite ready to take that leap; his single buddy Sebastian (Eric Dane) suggests delaying the inevitable by getting a dog as a temporary substitute. John takes the advice and takes Jenny to get a puppy; they select Marley, an adorable golden lab who turns out to be more than a little trouble.
Their adventures with Marley--an untrainable bundle of energy who eats, chews, chases and humps everything in sight--ends up providing fodder for John when he is bumped up from third-string reporter to columnist. The dog is the continuing thread as we follow the couple through career success, new jobs, and the addition of three kids to the family.
But the narrative is episodic and entirely too busy; the clumsy screenplay is, surprisingly, credited to two very skilled screenwriters (Scott Frank, who adapted Out of Sight and Get Shorty, and Don Roos, who wrote The Opposite of Sex and Happy Endings), but they can't find a compelling push from scene to scene. The passage of time is sometimes handled cleverly (as in a well-executed montage done in the form of a list of things that happened), but the film still plays, for the most part, like a series of vignettes rather than a real three-act story. And the standard movie subplots--John's career issues, his jealousy of Sebastian's freewheeling bachelor life, the required strains on their marriage--feel like we're just marking time.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) also does some damage with his poor sense of pace; the film is indisputably overlong at 115 minutes. And some of his directorial choices are just plain odd, like his apparent affection for quick zooms, an aesthetic choice that only Robert Altman can get away with, and he's no longer with us. But Frankel at least seems to understand his target, families-and-seniors, PG-rated audience. Marley & Me is light as a feather--in fact, it's one of the more vanilla movies you're likely to see, full of sun-drenched cinematography and twinkly score and white-bread song cues like "Shiny Happy People."
Which is to say that it's a bland film, yes, but not necessarily a bad one. Wilson and Aniston each get some moments of real depth, and they're quite believable and comfortable together as a married couple. Alan Arkin's presence is always a welcome one, and I'm thrilled to see Clark Peters (Lester Freamon from The Wire) getting work, even if it's an underwritten role like this one. Plenty of isolated moments play very well (such as Aniston's scene with Marley after she miscarries), and, for as much as the cluttered screenplay crams in, some of its exclusions are noteworthy (for example, we're spared an expected childbirth scene; the camera lingers on Marley playing with a new bone while John and Jenny are at the hospital).
And then there is the ending. I had heard in advance that the film ends with Marley's death; in fact, my wife refused to watch it with me because of that information (and I believe she then returned to her episode of the rape-and-murder fest Law & Order: SVU). But, in light of all of my problems with the film, there is no denying that the last twenty or so minutes of Marley & Me are emotional, effective, and moving. I could be approaching this from an overly biased point of view; we lost an old and dear pet very recently, and I'm sure I was bringing much of that into my viewing experience. But that's why it works: the loss of a pet is a common experience, but one that few movies have ever explored. This one does so with tenderness and wisdom. Is it manipulative? You betcha. But I don't mind a little manipulation if it's done this skillfully.
Video and Audio:
Again, our friends at Fox have only provided a screening copy for review on DVD Talk. As is custom, the single-layer disc features unfinalized video and audio presentations, including an anamorphic image that's a real dog (har har!), full of compression artifacts and logo burn-ins. The 5.1 audio mix is more acceptable, with a clean center dialogue track and a nice spread of music and effects, but this too may be a work-in-progress. We'll hopefully see a final retail version, and be able to adjust this review accordingly.
We were sent a single-disc review copy, but it includes the plentiful extras that reportedly comprise the "2-Disc Bad Boy Edition"; the second disc is apparently just a digital copy of the movie. First up is a large selection of Deleted Scenes (26:17); the volume of them is a little astonishing, since the movie is already a good half hour too long (though some of these are actually extended versions of scenes that made the cut). There are a couple of interesting inclusions, however, including a welcome appearance by Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm). Audio commentary by director Frankel is also available for these scenes.
We next have a pair of very slick, over-produced promotional featurettes: "Finding Marley" (7:49) and "Breaking the Golden Rule" (8:03). The former focuses on the dogs and their trainers, while the latter is a more general behind-the-scenes promo package, including interviews with the stars and the real-life John & Jenny. "On Set with Marley: A Dog of All Trades" (2:37) is someone's unfunny attempt to do a clever Marley profile; it tries too hard and should be avoided at all costs. The disc's Gag Reel (5:41) offers a few good blown lines and crack-ups, but falls victim to the now-common trap of padding the running time with general behind-the-scenes goofiness. "When Not To Pee" (2:18) is a fairly interesting extended outtake, narrated and explained by Frankel.
The remaining pieces are for the animal lovers. The "Animal Adoption" (5:19) featurette promotes the virtues of adopting pets from animal rescue. The "Purina Dog Chow Marley & Me Video Contest Finalists" (6:05 total) and "Purina Dog Chow Video Hall of Fame" (2:07 total) sections offer a series of Dog Chow commercials centered around home videos of cute dogs doing tricks and playing. I'm presuming Dog Chow did some kind of tie-in with the movie; the commercials are cute if a little repetitive.
A series of Trailers (including, God help us, one for the new direct-to-video Legally Blonde sequel) finish out the special features.
The fact that Marley & Me gets its ending so right doesn't negate how much it gets wrong in the 90 minutes that precedes it. But it does elevate it to a film that is, at the very least, worth a rental. The performers are likable, the dogs are cute, and there's little to offend much of anybody; it's basically harmless, with some tears at the end, and for some people, that's more than enough. Some viewers, though, are bound to wonder why they didn't bring the third act's level of skill to the rest of the picture.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.