Hit any multiplex these days and you'll know when the latest showing of "Marley & Me" has just ended -- simply observe the stream of tears pouring out of the theater.
"I promised myself I wasn't going to cry, but I couldn't help myself," Lakewood resident Billie Peterson said, dabbing her eyes after a weekend "Marley" showing at the Edwards 26 in the Long Beach Towne Center, which she attended with her two daughters. "But we weren't the only ones. The whole theater was sniffling at the end."
In a season with no shortage of sad cinematic tidings, the most doleful dog story since "Old Yeller" has all but cornered the Kleenex market. "Marley," based on John Grogan's mega-selling memoir, sits as the nation's No. 1 movie, having taken in more than $50 million since opening on Christmas.
Coming on the heels of the talking canines of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and countless cartoon critter movies, the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that "Marley" is a kid-targeted movie about a wacky dog doing wild and crazy things. 20th Century Fox has marketed the PG-rated movie by playing up the mischief; commercials feature the irascible Labrador retriever yanking leashes, stealing turkeys and jumping out of moving cars while George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" plays in the background.
But although "Marley" doesn't skimp on the shenanigans, it also has much in common with family dog dramas of yore, tear-jerkers like "Lassie Come Home" and, of course, "Old Yeller." Like the current Michelle Williams indie drama, "Wendy and Lucy," "Marley" knows the depths of the bonds that form between people and their pets. Unlike "Wendy and Lucy," it doesn't shy away from indulging in a little overt sentimentality.
"We were talking about 'Terms of Endearment' and 'Love Story' in terms of the impact we were hoping to have," said "Marley" director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"). "I remember being a kid, people came out of 'Love Story' unable to speak. That's the chord we wanted to strike."
And what better way to do so than to employ a dog? Hollywood has long exploited moviegoers' fuzzy feeling about their furry four-legged friends, knowing that putting pets in peril is a sure-fire way to strike an emotional chord with audiences. And "Marley & Me" is no exception. If you're one of those who didn't buy or borrow Grogan's 2005 bestselling memoir (or one of its other literary spinoffs), it might be time to issue a spoiler warning.
"Marley & Me" follows the lives of a young married couple (played in the movie by Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson) who adopt a Lab pup. The book chronicles their adventures with "the world's worst dog," as well as 13 years' worth of ordinary married moments. So, in between the leg humping and obedience school flunk-outs, there are job transfers, postpartum depression and mild midlife crisis.
As the years blur by, the Grogans grow as a family, adding three children, and Marley begins to slow down, barely able to raise the energy to bark at the deliveryman. The ending -- spoiled by graffiti vandals on several area billboards -- leads to what Variety critic Todd McCarthy calls an emptying of the audiences' tear ducts that succeeds to the point that "theater managers may need to mop the floor afterward."
Grogan, speaking by phone from his home in Pennsylvania, laughs at that description. He'd like to think that people are crying not just for Marley but out of empathy for the family's loss, but he also knows watching a dog grow old can reduce grown men to tears.
"I heard from a lot of tough-guy men -- police officers, firefighters, construction workers . . . Howard Stern -- who said, 'I cried my eyes out at the end of your book,' " Grogan said. "And they're not embarrassed to say that. It's OK for men to cry over a dog."
"Marley" star Wilson, the devoted owner of an Australian cattle dog named Garcia, recently cited "Old Yeller" as the "benchmark" for dog movies. What people forget about that 1957 Disney movie, said film critic Leonard Maltin, is the scene that comes after Tommy Kirk shoots his beloved but now rabid dog.
"When the father gives meaning to it, talking about how sometimes your heart is broken and life will knock you flat . . . well, that's where I lose it," Maltin said. "Then the other puppy comes, and it becomes about the same thing as 'Bambi' and 'The Lion King,' this continuity of life."
Theater managers at Long Beach's Edwards 26 said kids leaving "Marley" are either being comforted by their parents ("Aaaaaw . . . it's OK") or bouncing off the walls, asking for a dog of their own. Frankel took his 7-year-old twins to see the film and doesn't think there's anything in the movie that kids can't process.
"We, as Americans, don't deal well with death," Frankel said. "I think it's good, the questions the movie raises. It's a nice way to bring up the subject and not avoid it."
"Marley & Me's" success is probably good news for director Lasse Hallstrom's tear-jerker "Hachiko: A Dog Story," which follows the legendary Japanese Akita that showed up at a Tokyo train station every day for 10 years, waiting for his master, unaware he had died of a stroke. The film has yet to find a North American distributor, but the movie played well when it screened in November in Westwood for foreign buyers.
"My friend and his wife came out blubbering," Maltin said. "And they couldn't have been happier."
And for those looking for some lighter animal fare, there's good news too. "Hotel for Dogs," which features former Nickelodeon star Emma Roberts cavorting with a houseful of crazy canines, hits theaters Jan. 16.