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Marley and Me (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Some things should be taken into consideration in evaluating this review. First is that I am a big Owen Wilson admirer. Despite the deplorable quality of most of the films in which he has appeared, he is always entertaining. He should be a megastar.

Second, I like Jennifer Anniston.

Third, I had to leave the screening 15 minutes early.

This is a really good, humorous film about a young married couple and how things progress in a marriage. It’s the story of two people in love who face problems but persevere. Director David Frankel, whose last film was the delightful “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) has made another entertaining film out of John Grogan’s autobiographical bestseller. Although it’s intended as a lighthearted comedy, for me it was mainly a sweet, realistic, love story.

The only thing I didn’t like about the film was the dog, Marley. I don’t know why they used this dog, which is little more than a McGuffin, to tell what would have been a good story without him, but you’re stuck with it. Well, I do know why they used the dog; that was what the book was about.

The dog is irretrievably badly behaved. I can’t imagine anybody putting up with such a destructive animal in their household. It wasn’t funny; it was annoying.

John Grogan (Wilson) and his wife, Jenny (Anniston) are both writers. She’s got a better job than he at the Post, but he lands a job as a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the rival paper to hers, working for editor Alan Arkin (in what was, for me, his best role since 1966’s “The Russians are Coming; The Russians are Coming). Arkin received an Oscar® for “Little Miss Sunshine,” a movie I thought highly overrated for a performance I though equally overrated. This one is better than that but won’t get even a thought of a nomination.

John’s best friend, Sebastian (Eric Dane, who plays Dr. McSteamy on “Grey’s Anatomy”), tells him that in order to keep Jenny from getting pregnant they should get a dog, so they adopt Marley, a cute Labrador puppy who quickly grows into a monster, psychotic and incapable of being trained, as we are shown in scenes in which Kathleen Turner appears in a charming cameo as dog trainer, Mrs. Kornblut. In fact, my family had a Labrador once for a very short period of time. It was not only obstreperous; it was the dumbest dog I’ve ever seen. Marley fits the bill.

So much work went into putting the dog in the movie! The production utilized 22 dogs to portray Marley, who ages thirteen years in the story.  Eleven of the 22 Marleys were puppies, a large number necessitated by the film’s schedule; since the film was shot out of sequence, a puppy used in a given scene would have grown too much to be used again in a scene shot weeks later.  Other on-set “Marleys” ranged in age from six months to fourteen years.

The trainers let Marley be Marley – meaning that since the on-screen character was so rambunctious, it made sense to let the “actors” run wild.  “Preparing the dogs [for the film] was almost a kind of anti-training,” notes Forbes.  “Usually, we try and create definite behaviors and the dogs are very well trained.  With MARLEY & ME, the dogs got to not only be dogs, but the most unruly, untrainable and out-of-control dog in the world.  We encouraged bad behavior!”

Frankel, adamant about letting the dogs be dogs, filmed them even during rehearsals – understanding that their unpredictable behavior could yield the best “take” at any given moment.  The main Marley, a dog named Clyde, was predictably unpredictable, just like his cinematic alter-ego, so Frankel elected not to rehearse him at all.  “He’s a dog trained to be untrained,” says Frankel, “and it was exciting to watch him work.  Every time we filmed him, he added something really funny and energetic to the scene.” Energetic, maybe; funny, no. The movie would have been immensely better without Marley.

In addition to having as its basis an impossible dog, Arkin persuades John to be a columnist, a position in which he is wildly successful. But he doesn’t like it. He wants to be a reporter so he’s constantly grousing about having to write a column. Please! I’m a writer. I know writers. I don’t know a writer who wouldn’t give his right arm to write a column.

If you can forget the dog, this is a very entertaining film in which Wilson and Anniston give terrific performances as the young couple developing into a family.

December 16, 2008