The title promises a perfect holiday movie—something about old Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner. Unhappily, though opening on Christmas Day, the title turns out to be about a different Marley entirely—a canine, no less. And despite the presence of two amiable human stars and a splendid physical production, the movie’s a dog, too.
Based on a book by newspaper columnist John Grogan, which was in turn based on the pieces he penned for his Florida paper about himself and Marley, the picture is an obnoxiously cute and mawkish man-and-his-mutt story. Owen Wilson, who’s really better at playing mischievous but rather dense lowlifes rather than the regular family guy he does here, is Grogan, a would-be reporter who moves with his wife Jenny (Jennifer Anison) from Michigan to Palm Beach. She gets a job at one newspaper and he at another, and when, after a bit, she begins hinting about having a baby, he decides they should test the waters by getting her a puppy for her birthday, which they name after the singer. But the dog, a lab retriever, turns out to be totally uncontrollable and destructive. Still, he’s so cute they love him anyway and put up with all his shenanigans, letting him effectively take over their lives (as well as drive the poor girl they have housesit for them while they go off on a vacation to Ireland—cue some tasteless jokes about the tacky religious art in their inn’s bedroom—understandably nuts while they’re away). Meanwhile, John’s dyspeptic boss (Alan Arkin, doing his grumpy old man routine) persuades him to do a column rather than simple reportage, and his pieces focus more and more on Marley’s misadventures—with great success. (No wonder they put up with all the mess he creates.)
Time passes—as shown by an ill-advised montage sequence in which John rattles off event after event, big and small—until John and Jenny have kids (three, eventually) and begin arguing over the troubles that they and the persistently hyperactive Marley cause. (Their shouting matches don’t come close to those in “Revolutionary Road,” but they take on a nasty tone that adds a note of seriousness to what’s otherwise a very lightweight piece.) Ultimately they all wind up in a big old house outside Philadelphia, where John takes a new job. And it’s there that Marley grows old and frail, and eventually succumbs. It’s an extremely protracted process, eating up nearly a full half-hour—surely one of the longest animal death watches in cinematic history. (Disney had the good taste to dispatch Bambi’s mother in a quick swoop.) All the better to extract the tears, my dear.
Wilson and Aniston do what they can with this material—he’s more dour than usual, while she goes from perky to overburdened to happily supportive without missing a beat (or putting on a pound over the years, it seems—in fact, the only person who really ages convincingly is Eric Dane, as John’s reporter pal)—but they play second fiddle to the twenty-plus dogs who play Marley from pup to pooped out. And it’s frankly hard to sympathize with John and Jenny too much, as pleasant as Wilson and Aniston are, because they’re just too dumb to have their dog properly trained at any point over his long history of destructiveness. Of course, there’s a brief scene near the start when they take Marley to an imperious dog handler (Kathleen Turner, who’s certainly filling out in her older age), but after a few minutes she dismisses him as incorrigible and they make no further attempt to control him. It’s hard not to believe that they deserve all the discomfort they get.
As a movie “Marley and Me” is as sloppy and undisciplined as the mutt himself, something that can be attributed not just to the screenplay but to the haphazard direction of David Frankel, who shows little of the style and timing that marked “The Devil Wears Prada,” and the uneasy editing of Mark Livolsi (as in that sorry montage). But the behind-the-scenes crew do a fine job—the picture looks quite attractive in Florian Ballhaus’ widescreen photography, especially considering how difficult it must have been working with all those canines.
“Marley and Me” is overextended under the best circumstances, coming in at a full two hours. But in dog time, if you use the customary conversion ratio, that’s like fourteen hours, which is about how long it feels. Woof.