Tag Archives: D

MARLEY & ME

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.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

Grade: D

Until now Charlie Kaufman relied on others to bring his pretentiously convoluted scripts to the screen, but now he’s upped the ante by taking on the directorial duties himself, and the level of self-indulgence and painful obscurity has increased exponentially. From its cutesy-clever title down to a protracted and tedious finale, “Synecdoche, New York” is both interminable and terminally boring.

The basic narrative of the picture—which is something that can be described only in the loosest sense in a Kaufman movie—has to do with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the director of a modest theatre company in Schenecdaty, New York, who suddenly finds himself physically falling apart. Adding to his woes is the fact that his artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their little daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her; and a possible romantic connection with Hazel (Samantha Morton), his box-office manager, comes to nothing too.

Things change when he receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant that he decides to use to create a life-mirroring play in which a huge troupe of actors will perform simultaneous scenes in a miniature of New York City that he constructs in a massive warehouse. His preparations for the venture go on for years, during which time he hires a strange fellow (Tom Noonan) who’s been following him around surreptitiously to play Caden himself, and an actress (Emily Watson) to play Hazel. He also eventually hires a woman (Diane Wiest) to play a cleaning woman—he’s obsessed with cleaning, it seems, and often sees himself in that role—but eventually she’ll rise to a more important role. The play, of course, is always being rehearsed and never being performed, as Caden grows older and feebler and must deal with the passing of his parents and the travails of the grown-up Olive while having to confront his own imminent mortality.

How much of this is supposed to represent reality and how much Caden’s artistic vision or psychological hallucination is anybody’s guess. But clearly what Kaufman’s trying to get at is the inevitability of decrepitude and death and the necessity for each of us to come to terms with it. As the titular part of speech suggests, Caden represents every man, just as his model represents Manhattan and his play represents human life and so on. The doubling effect also extends into what little we see of the play, which reflects “actual” experiences and, of course, features “fictional” equivalents of the author and other “real” people. And it’s a commentary on how art is essentially a torturously reductionist process, a point made not only by Caden’s mini-New York but by Adele’s tiny paintings, which are so small one has to look through a magnifying glass to see them.

There are a few moments in “Synecdoche” that afford the sort of weird, quirkily amusing nonsense that Kaufman revels in. The initial conversations with little Olive, for instance, are pretty funny, and the scene of Mr. Cotard’s funeral (featuring a coffin reminiscent of the joke at the end of Bryan Forbes’s priceless comedy “The Wrong Box”) is a briefly brilliant bit of black comedy. But for the most part the picture is a glum and dreary disquisition on the desperation of the human condition and the ultimate futility of the artistic impulse, presented in a maddeningly ponderous style. It grows so irritatingly opaque and heavy over the course of two hours that you may come to feel that one of its odder moments—in which Hazel and her husband purchase a burning house and move into it despite its being filled with smoke—might be taken as an apt analogy for the act of buying a ticket for the movie and settling in to watch it.

Given all that, it hardly seems to make much difference that Kaufman has assembled an imposing cast to flesh out his ideas. This isn’t one of Hoffman’s best performances—the character is far too drab and sullen for him really to shine—but he does his best with it, which is all one can ask. Among the others, Morton and Watson come off best, but even they often look puzzled by what they’re asked to do. Keener, as has been the case so frequently of late, is pretty much wasted. You have to give production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Adam Stockhausen and the visual effects team led by Mark Russell high marks for accomplishing so much on what was probably a very limited budget, but Fred Elmes’s cinematography could have used a dash of imagination, and Jon Brion’s score doesn’t register very strongly.

One can appreciate the effort of any artist to think so large as to try to encompass The Meaning of Life in his work. But all that Kaufman seems to conclude on the subject is a much more elaborate version of the old nostrum that life’s a bitch and then you die. As a result, in the case of “Synecdoche, New York”—to garble Plato’s version of Socrates—the examined life is not worth watching.