Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Marley & Me: Kinda good dog

Marley & Me (2008) • View trailer for Marley & Me
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for unflinching encounters with doggy doo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.08
Buy DVD: Marley & Me • Buy Blu-Ray: Marley & Me (Three-Disc Bad Dog Edition) [Blu-ray]

"A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things: a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty."
Among his many eccentricities, Marley turns out to be terrified of
thunderstorms ... a rather frequent phenomenon in Florida. The Grogans
discover this the hard way, after leaving their young pooch on his own in the
garage for a few hours. They return to a scene of destruction that one would
not have thought possible, from a single dog.

Newspaper columnist Josh Grogan wrote Marley & Me as a tribute to a dog cheerfully described as the worst dog in the world ... but also treasured as the best friend he ever had.

The best-selling memoir struck a familiar chord with readers across the country and even around the world, many of whom have watched warily as director David Frankel's film adaptation took shape and made its way to the big screen. While perhaps not as numerous as Harry Potter or Star Trek fans, dog lovers are no less devoted; one crosses them at one's own peril.

The casting announcement was greeted with skepticism. Although Jennifer Aniston is a reasonable choice as Grogan's wife, Jenny, Owen Wilson is more problematic as Josh. Wilson's track record has been uneven, to say the least; that aside, he's known for eccentric, goofball roles that he rarely takes seriously.

And Wilson's involvement suggested the worst of possibilities: that Marley's demolition-derby behavior, in order to better mesh with his human co-star's manner, might be escalated to the wincing absurdities of Disney's worst 1970s slapstick animal comedies.

Happily, this adaptation of Marley & Me does not fall into that trap.

Frankel, who helmed the adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, clearly understands the dividing line between enough and too much. Although Marley's destructive tendencies certainly occupy much of Grogan's book, they are by no means the meat of the story, which concerns Josh and Jenny as much as it does their canine companion.

Frankel follows that lead; Marley is one of three major characters in this film, not its overly conspicuous prime focus. Frankel also maintains the proper balance of gentle romantic comedy and canine hijinks, and scripters Scott Frank and Don Roos retain all the key events — happy, sad and funny — that made Grogan's book such a delightful read.

Even Wilson clearly strives to step into his character's earnest shoes, although that does raise a fresh problem: He lacks the acting chops for a story presented even this breezily. Although playing a real-world guy, Wilson approaches every scene with the same slightly dazed expression, as if he's waiting for some muse to show him how to properly compose his face.

And the notion of Wilson as a serious journalist? Don't even get me started.

I like Aniston, and within her limited range she's a solid actor; she's reasonably persuasive as Jenny Grogan. But Aniston is nothing special, so when she's the one out-acting Wilson, that says a lot about his talent ... or lack thereof.

On top of which, the scene-stealing Alan Arkin — as Grogan's newspaper editor — effortlessly shows them how it's done, during his few brief appearances. He may have redefined the stereotype of crusty newsroom chiefs, and set the new standard.

Although the film rather strangely avoids specific time references, the story begins in the early 1990s as Josh and Jenny, freshly arrived in West Palm Beach, Fla., settle into careers as journalists at competing local newspapers. They also settle into their first home, in a not-entirely-safe neighborhood where the squeal of police sirens is perhaps too frequent.

As a happily married couple living the American dream, Josh and Jenny realize that it's only a matter of time before children enter the picture. But Jenny can't even keep plants alive, and Josh worries about his own parenting skills. The solution, suggested by a colleague: Start with a dog.

Josh and Jenny fail to register precisely why their new 12-pound yellow Lab comes with such a bargain-basement price tag (whereas, in the book, they get an early clue about Marley's eventual behavior after catching a glimpse of the puppy's father, with the "odd, slightly crazed, yet somehow joyous gaze in its eyes").

But they bring Marley home, and eventually adapt to their four-legged companion's enormous appetite ... for everything from kibble to couch cushions. And telephones. And dry-wall.

For the most part, Frankel cleverly — and wisely — presents Marley's various bad habits as a fait accompli. The film does not wallow in scenes of the dog running amok; we merely find, with Josh and Jenny, the evidence of each fresh transgression.

At about this point, dog owners will be nodding in recognition, while everybody else wonders how in God's name two otherwise intelligent people could live with such a beast.

And yet — and this is important — at no time do Frankel and his screenwriters suggest that getting rid of Marley even is a consideration ... and we accept this. Josh and Jenny are responsible people; bad as he is, Marley is in their care, and they resolutely determine to make the most of the situation.

Except once.

Wilson's miscasting aside, the film's most serious stumble occurs once the Grogans start their family, as their first child (Patrick) is followed with unexpected haste by the arrival of their second (Conor).

The new baby has colic and serious nutritional challenges; although everything works out in the end, this chapter in Grogan's book is quite harrowing, as Jenny sinks into a blue funk of postpartum depression.

Marley's distracting, calamitous presence finally proves too chaotic, and Jenny snaps, ordering the dog to be banished. Permanently.

The film turns this awful ordeal — one likely to be recognized by many parents — into little more than a superficial hiccup. Aniston simply lacks the grit to put a sufficiently dangerous tone into her voice when Jenny orders Josh to get rid of Marley, and Wilson can't begin to make us believe that any of this needs to be taken seriously.

And, indeed, one scene later, the whole incident evaporates. Hardly the way it happened in real life, and not the slightest bit credible.

One other hitch is more a missed opportunity than something genuinely troublesome. The Grogans live next to a neighbor with a 17-year-old daughter, Lisa; we register her presence early on only because of a distinctive blue streak in her hair. Later, the Grogans are startled one evening by a scream; tracing its source, Josh finds that Lisa has just been stabbed during a mugging gone awry.

In the film, this is merely the catalyst that prompts the Grogans to move to a much safer neighborhood in Boca Raton; we never see Lisa again, although the script gives minor lip service to the notion that she'll be "all right." Pfah.

Grogan's book is superior in two respects. For openers, it reveals a different side of Marley, as he stands guard while Josh cradles the injured girl and waits for an ambulance: "...there he stood, 10 feet from us, facing the street, in a determined, bull-like crouch I had never seen before ... a fighter's stance. ... If the armed assailant returned, he would have to get past my dog first."

Several weeks later — in Grogan's book — and after she has recovered, Lisa returns and spends an afternoon visiting with Josh and Marley, never quite finding the words for a formal thank-you, but clearly wanting to convey gratitude with her presence. It's an incredibly touching sequence in a book laden with powerful moments.

And it's all absent — Marley's rise to the occasion, Lisa's tender reappearance — in this film.

One gets the impression that Frank and Roos felt compelled to include many of the book's key dramatic arcs, without knowing how to properly follow them through ... or perhaps Frankel couldn't get the acting oomph out of his stars, and chose to leave scenes on the cutting-room floor. Whatever the reason, it's bewildering.

And irritating. Even people who haven't read the book will be dissatisfied by these two sequences.

What we're left with, then, is a family-friendly movie that never digs too deeply: one that celebrates a lovable, rough-and-tumble lug of a dog without touching the darker depths — and triumphant joys — that characterize Grogan's book. So while Grogan's fans have nothing major to complain about, they still may wistfully wish that this movie had more weight.

Such woulda-coulda-shouldas aside, though, Marley & Me is certain to be the movie of choice for family groups this holiday season. And if it prompts additional sales of Grogan's book, all the better.

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