Dog movies tend to paint canines as cartoons: They destroy things; they save the day by alerting firemen and cops; they prance around to goofy music. A few films, like My Dog Skip and Old Yeller, managed to show dogs as what they truly are: a loved and integral part of the family.
Not only can you add Marley and Me to the list of "real" movies about dogs; you can put it right on top.
The film is based on the memoirs of John Grogan (played winningly by Owen Wilson), who buys a puppy for his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston, in fine form). The two jump into a puppy bin, and Jennifer picks up a white Labrador that its owner doesn't hesitate to offer at a discount. They dub the little guy "Clearance Puppy" and take him home, where his name will eventually become Marley.
Marley doesn't like to be left alone, and he doesn't like thunderstorms. The two situations apart are bad enough, but when they combine, bad things happen. He eats through drywall; he eats answering machines; he eats couches. We're not talking the usual doggie-shred jobs, either: Marley passes this stuff through his system. When they attempt a dog-obedience class, Marley humps the instructor (a militant Kathleen Turner) and gets expelled within minutes.
The Grogans endure, and Marley is a major presence through the years. Three children arrive, and Marley, thankfully, doesn't attempt to eat them. He knocks them down every now and then, prompting Jennifer to ban him from the house and fueling a big fight between husband and wife. Yet the couple finds ways to resolve the problems between themselves and their beloved and crazy pet. Loving Marley comes with a price tag (one that is usually attached to couches and chairs), and they are willing to pay it.
While Marley is often the focus, director David Frankel wisely lets his actors carry most of the weight. Aniston, playing an aspiring writer who decides to be a stay-at-home mom, deftly captures the confusion and occasional regrets that come with such a decision. Wilson, who is prone to camp and his trademark whining, finds a way to humanize the film's most outrageous moments. It's his best work outside of a Wes Anderson movie, where his work often has a lot of nuance, something woefully missing from clowning efforts like Drillbit Taylor and You, Me and Dupree. Credit Frankel for bringing out the best in Wilson. He has a scene in a vet's office that seems like he's channeling the hearts of all men and women who have been in a similar situation.
As for the dog, he's played by an assortment of labs throughout the years, and they are all adorable. The puppies have that innocent glint in their eyes; the young studs are appropriately crazy; and the old dogs will break your heart. Some of the film's best dialogue occurs when Wilson is sitting alone with his crazy pup in the car, letting Marley know--in a half-kidding sort of way--that he's the world's worst dog.
This film may be the last to depict a newspaper reporter who can afford a huge farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Seriously: The Grogans move into a mansion that is out of hand for a reporter's salary. Hell, it looks like it's out of hand for Aniston's salary.
Marley and Me is one of 2008's best family films. It's going to spike the sales of white Labradors around the planet, and will earn a lot of dogs clemency after they chew couch pillows. It will also cause tears to be shed--so be prepared.