Let me preface this by telling you I am one of the biggest babies in America. There were four or five major male influences in my life growing up and all of them were big babies so I really didn’t stand a chance. I’m apt to cry during all of the appropriate guy (aka war and sports) movies, such as the final scene of “Saving Private Ryan” and the moment that Mike Winchell narrowly misses the end zone at the end of “Friday Night Lights.” But beyond these themes, the one thing that is guaranteed to force me to cry is that of a person and his/her dog.
I read John Grogan’s “Marley and Me” last year, some time after it had already reached “Bestseller” status on just about every list imaginable. Sitting in an airport, I begrudgingly pulled this book from my collection of reading material and began reading to pass the time of my seven hour layover. Six hours later the book was finished and the people sitting around me must have been wondering if I had some sort of emotional disorder due to all the ridiculous weeping I had done. I looked like death to be sure. Mothers were shooing their children away from me and a hobo, sensing I might be in distress, offered me a sip of his whiskey (I made that last part up).
I’m typically a bit skeptical of the movie based on a book. This is true partially because if it’s popular enough to spawn a book it’s too popular for me to handle and partially because if I actually like the book, the movie usually falls short. So when I heard that “Marley and Me” was being turned into a major motion picture I was somewhat short of optimistic. The additions of Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, as well as my natural curiosity concerning how well the book could be translated to screen eventually won me over.
“Marley and Me” is the story of a young couple (Owen and Aniston), their careers, their children, and the dog that comes along for the ride. As the story begins, the Grogans have just moved to Miami. One is a reporter, the other a columnist for rival newspapers. In order to keep Jennifer’s (Aniston) maternal instinct at bay, the un-ready-for-parenthood John (Owen) buys her a yellow lab, a runt puppy named Marley who turns out to be the “world’s worst dog.”
Marley is a pain, a nuisance, a hassle to deal with. He destroys the garage when a thunderstorm rolls in. He eats the couch cushions. He humps legs. He swallows a brand new necklace, resulting in the inevitable Poop Exploration known all too well to dog lovers everywhere. Marley disrupts a dog obedience class. He tries to climb out a car window. He causes mayhem in a variety of ways only believable because they did in fact actually happen.
Marley becomes notorious as John transitions from full time reporter to part time columnist and finds it hard to write about anything but the world’s worst dog. As Marley’s exploits become more outrageous, John’s column becomes more popular and soon he finds himself with a daily column. At the same time, his family is going from a young couple with dreams to a family of five (plus a monstrous dog) while his closest friend Sebastian, the eternal bachelor, travels the world writing the pieces John wishes he could. A prevailing theme within this film is the sacrifices both John and Jennifer make as they realize the importance of family over that of career.
“Marley and Me” follows the path of the Grogans for some fifteen years and truly captures the essence of real life. There’s very little sugarcoating here, though the film manages to keep its “family movie” tag. Both of the main characters go through ups and downs, both separately and together. They experience the issues that come with trying to start a family and then trying to manage the family you did start. Through it all their lives are shadowed by the ever-present Marley and the shenanigans he pulls along the way.
Director David Frankel does a wonderful job of allowing the movie to be about the dog without allowing the dog to become the all-encompassing focus of the movie. Too often a Family Pet movie falls into the trap of ignoring the human characters and forcing emotion upon the viewer. Not so with “Marley.” Marley is very much a part of the family rather than having the family revolve around him. This seems simple enough and yet I can scarcely remember a movie that manages to show family life with the dog as well as this one. You never forget that this movie is about a dog and his family but what we have here is enough strong material to support a good movie even without the dog. That is a rare quality. In addition, Wilson and Aniston, along with Eric Dane (Sebastian) and Alan Arkin (editor Arnie Klein) are near perfect casting choices and all deliver strong performances. But make no mistake, the true stars are all the dogs who take turns as Marley in his various times of life.
I’d like to tell you I held it together, manned up, and didn’t shed a tear during the inevitable end of this film. But the truth is I was lucky to make it half way through before the sniffles began. It has never ceased to amaze me the impact that a terrible dog can have on one’s life, whether it is over the course of fifteen years or that of a two hour movie. “Marley” sums up what it’s like to have a dog as part of one’s family, even if he is the “world’s worst dog.”