I was prepared to hate Marley and Me. This is probably something a film critic shouldn’t admit but the trailers for this adaptation of John Grogan’s best seller features all the tell tale signs of being a shameless, manipulative tearjerker. Truth be told, by film’s end, I had shed a tear or two, but only because the focus of the film was not on the title dog; rather the film dealt mainly with the ups and downs of an American family, sincerely delivered by director David Frankel and his cast.
The last thing on John and Jennifer Grogan’s (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) minds after they get married is adopting a dog. After all, they’ve just moved from Michigan to Florida, are both starting new jobs at rival newspapers and trying to whip a tiny, rundown home into shape. However, in an effort to delay his wife’s yearning for a child, John gets her a puppy for her birthday, a mangy mutt they deem a “clearance puppy” as its owner is so eager to get rid of him, she offers to sell him at a cut rate. Ignoring the sage advice that “you get what you pay for” the Grogans scoop up the Labrador retriever, dub him Marley and sacrifice their sanity as well as many pieces of furniture.
As the Grogans endure their share of tragedy (a miscarriage, marital strife, etc.) and success (professional success, three healthy children), Marley continues to destroy couches, terrorize house sitters and create mayhem as only a drooling canine can. The scenes in which the star, portrayed by 21 separate dogs, rends the various sets are pleasing in a way that only the sight of a wild creature ripping up a kitchen floor can be. Needless to say, all dog owners in the audience will sympathize with the Grogans and recall their own experience when the only thing that saved their own hound was a soulful look from the bottomless pit that is their pet’s eyes.
However, what makes the film work is that it answers a need in viewers by providing us with a picture of the American Dream that’s becoming more and more an unrealistic possibility. Frankel’s aesthetic is modern Norman Rockwell as one scene after another features shots of the perfect wife, caring for three perfect children in an upper middle class home, while a loving dad and their faithful pet looks on. In many ways, this is as much of a fantasy as Star Wars for most and only the solid work from Wilson and Aniston save it from being too cloying or insulting. Much like many heartwarming films of yesterday, Marley and Me may have only one foot in reality but the fantasy it provides is too enticing to scoff at. You’re far too busy wishing it were true and that you were in the middle of it.