Going to ‘Marley & Me’ requires you must love dogs

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, December 24, 2008 2:23pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Now and again Marley’s owner will call him “the world’s worst dog,” or we’ll see the big slobbery Lab tearing up the family couch. But nobody watching “Marley &Me” will be fooled by such gestures.

This movie is unabashedly designed to tug at the heartstrings of dog lovers, quite possibly the easiest movie audience in the world. With sometimes brutal efficiency, “Marley &Me” does just that.

It’s based on a memoir by newspaper columnist John Grogan, who wrote often about his dog Marley. John and his wife Jennifer, played in the film by Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, adopt Marley as a puppy after they land jobs with newspapers in Florida. (You can tell the movie is a period piece, because newspapers appear to be thriving.)

From the first, Marley is — how shall we put this — rambunctious. Cooped up in a small apartment and quickly surrounded by a brood of undifferentiated children, Marley somewhat understandably never becomes tamed.

An episodic structure leads us through Marley’s daffy shenanigans and various changes in the Grogan family plan (eventually they leave sunny Florida for frosty Philadelphia). A sequence with a dog trainer (Kathleen Turner) is played for laughs, although you sort of wish somebody had the trainer’s sense of discipline around here.

Periodically, John runs into an old journalist pal (Eric Dane) who leads a glamorous existence as a foreign correspondent; but rest assured that in the end, domesticity will be upheld as the superior decision.

Director David Frankel, who did “The Devil Wears Prada,” tries hard to make this movie more than a “Beethoven” gagfest. So do Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, two performers who know how to find the quirky curlicues within sketchily written characters.

It all leads up to the inevitable — which, if you haven’t read the book or seen “Old Yeller,” you might want to skip over now. The drawn-out account of Marley’s decline in health will ring true to pet owners who have seen their dogs through the life cycle.

Having said that, it might be just a teensy bit of a bummer for families who saw the film’s cheerful TV ads and are looking for light-hearted fun on Christmas weekend. This movie is not light-hearted.

The canine-inclined will love the movie, probably. There’s something annoying about Grogan basing his career on his dog’s problems, however, and something manipulative about the film’s emotional button-pushing. Even a cute yellow dog can’t bury those bones.

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