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Slurpy, sweet and sad

AT THE MOVIES | REVIEWS

'Marley & Me,' the cute tale of a lovable, out-of-control dog, yanks hard at the heartstrings.

December 25, 2008|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

Life isn't ever perfect. The marriage, the kids, the jobs and the pets that come along to fill it up can get messy and difficult. But it is in the muck that we often discover the love and the laughter. And so it is with "Marley & Me "-- an imperfect, messy and sometimes trying film that has moments of genuine sweetness and humor sprinkled in between the saccharine and the sadness.

Adapted from John Grogan's sentimental bestseller, "Marley & Me" is essentially the story of a couple of newlyweds and their crazy dog -- with Grogan played by Owen Wilson, and his wife, Jenny, by Jennifer Aniston (regrettably both go by Jen, which makes it harder than ever to separate the actress from her pop-culture image).

There is a reason the title starts with Marley, who is billed as the world's worst dog. The studio wants to remind us it's his movie. They've got a point, even Wilson and Aniston at their cutest don't have much of a chance opposite an adorable out-of-control yellow Labrador played by a succession of 22 exceptionally insistent scene-stealers that take him from puppyhood to the gray-whiskered bittersweetness of old age.

All of which would be fine if "Marley & Me" was a canine comedy with a little romance on the side. It isn't. There is a dark center to the movie with difficult adult questions on the table the dog is chewing the legs off of -- marriage, parenting, life and loss, served up in big emotional packages, which, by the way, are not featured with big red bows in the ads.

There is always a risk when turning a book into a movie that the filmmakers -- in this case director David Frankel and writers Scott Frank and Don Roos -- will find themselves with too much story. And when you have too much story and two major stars, well three, something's gotta give, or at least it should. In "Marley & Me," too often it doesn't. There are career issues, house issues, when to start a family issues, kid issues, should Jen be a stay-at-home mom issues, the old neighborhood's decaying issues, the new neighborhood is pretentious issues, and always, always, always the Marley issues. Whew, it's exhausting, we need a flow chart.

Like the book, the film is intent on plucking those heartstrings at every turn starting with the opening pastoral scene of a boy and his dog ambling along -- a bucolic moment summarily destroyed by Marley on a dead run with Grogan trailing in his wake. Which is pretty much the way it goes for the rest of the movie. Dog with a heart of gold wreaks havoc; the increasingly not-so-happy couple tries to repair the collateral damage. Which, of course, is a not-so-subtle metaphor for life.

It all begins for the Grogans after a freak spring snow dusts their Michigan wedding, sending John and Jen packing for the warmer climes of West Palm Beach, Fla., where they arrive to the strains of R.E.M's "Shiny Happy People." In other words, disillusionment and disappointment are sure to follow.

An aspiring journalist with Watergate-case-cracking dreams, John agrees, reluctantly, to write a local column for the paper. Jen's a journalist too, serious and by all accounts successful, but we don't see much of that -- it's really not her movie.

With a column Grogan doesn't really want and Jen making noises about having a family, something between ambivalence and panic sets in. Enter Marley, the puppy that best friend Sebastian -- Eric Dane doing a slight variation of his weekly McSteamy on "Grey's Anatomy," more hair, still on the make -- promises will slow the tick, tick, tick of Jen's biological clock.

The puppy and the couple meet cute, there are blindfolds involved, and the Grogans' very organized world starts coming apart in bits and pieces, literally. The Lab chews and tears through everything, but a close-up of those liquid brown eyes and, well, all is forgiven. You know Frankel is working overtime to hit every emotional note possible when even a pooped-mango scene is designed to elicit a chorus of "ahhs."

Then there is Wilson -- a Lab of an actor with that shock of yellow-gold hair and gentle good nature. But instead of the forever frat boy of "Wedding Crashers" or the surfer dropout of "You, Me and Dupree," he's that guy's solid friend, the one who married his longtime sweetheart, got a job, had a family and feels guilty about any regrets. You've always been able to sense the underlying vulnerability in his characters, but he's a bit more wounded here, and it becomes him.

Aniston is comfortable in Jen's skin, though she's always better in smaller, intimate ensembles than oversized films like "Marley & Me." Still, there's an ease between Wilson and Aniston from the first frame -- they seem like good friends who've been married for years, which is a problem. At one point, after they're comfortably settled with three babies on board, Jen asks: Where are those sexy people we once were? Where were they ever, I wonder? You won't find them in this movie.

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