All that really counts for a movie like “Marley & Me” is that the climactic scenes empty the audiences’ tear ducts, and in this it succeeds to the point that theater managers may need to mop the floors afterward. A stuff-of-life saga as delineated by a family dog’s 13 years on Earth, this perky, episodic film is as broad and obvious as it could be, but delivers on its own terms thanks to sparky chemistry between its sunny blond stars, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, and the unabashed emotion-milking of the final reel. Fox has a winner here, likely to be irresistible to almost everyone but cats.
Shifting gears after “The Devil Wears Prada” from making light of corrosive careerism to briskly but sincerely assessing the pros and cons of domesticity, director David Frankel once again susses out what really matters in his material while paying cursory attention to matters of style and other niceties that may count most to aesthetes but go unnoticed by the hoi polloi.
In adapting John Grogan’s bestseller, estimable scribes Scott Frank and Don Roos have made certain to establish a resilient connection between John and Jenny (Wilson and Aniston), buoyant 30ish journalists who, as the 1990s begin, abandon Michigan for Palm Beach, Fla. Jenny runs her life by making lists of things to be accomplished, while John is more relaxed and uncertain, but the scripters and stars know the shorthand to convey the fun, healthy appetites and productive give-and-take enjoyed by the attractive young marrieds.
John starts as a lowly reporter on a local paper under an indulgent editor (Alan Arkin), and Jenny does assorted feature writing. Still, John’s not sure he’s got what it takes to be a good father, so he decides to give responsibility and discipline a trial run with a dog. But if the way they raise their rambunctious yellow lab, Marley, is any indication, these two should never have kids.
As John comments more than once, Marley is “the world’s worst dog”; he chews and tears up everything, jumps on people and is the first dog ever to be “fired” by a crusty old trainer (Kathleen Turner, now well on her way to becoming the new Shelley Winters). The comedy here is so broad as to qualify for a “Pets Out of Control”-type show, and it’s far from the only time Frankel takes a shameless anything-goes approach.
Despite the warning signs of how disruptive a disobedient little critter can be to the otherwise warm lives of two hot young things in South Florida, John and Jenny soon find themselves with two, and later three, sprigs of their own. The years pass; John becomes a popular columnist (writing often about that darn dog) while his adventurous single buddy, Sebastian (Eric Dane), makes him jealous by globetrotting for the New York Times and scoring lots of chicks; Jenny suffers through the frustrations of early motherhood before coming out the other side; and they finally end up as got-it-all whitebread yuppies with a gorgeous Pennsylvania countryside spread and an old dog, which is where the masses’ floodgates will open and curmudgeons will cringe.
It’s a choppy, inelegant picture, and those who chronicle the physical particulars of the stars will note that no effort is made to alter Aniston’s pert, firm bod to even momentarily reflect the effects of bearing three children. But the filmmakers know what’s important here, including the stars’ looks, so they rack up a winning score despite quite a bit of sloppy play in the field.
Animated and emotionally accessible, Aniston comes off better here than in most of her feature films, and Wilson spars well with her, even if, in the film’s weaker moments, he shows he’s on less certain ground with earnest material than he is with straight-faced impertinence.
Production values are routine, even hasty-looking at times. But, again, attention was paid where it counts — the 22 dogs enlisted to portray Marley all more than earned their paychecks, having turned in great performances.