Monday, January 12, 2009


Anybody who wants a pet Labrador retriever should watch the new Owen Wilson & Jennifer Aniston canine comedy “Marley & Me” (*** out of ****), so they’ll know everything that Labs chomp. Clearly, director David Frankel, whose last movie was the Anne Hathaway career comedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” wanted to explore entirely different themes, and he succeeds on the whole with this sentimental, shaggy dog saga. Ostensibly, scenarists Scott Frank of “Get Shorty” and Don Roos of “Bounce” adapted former “Philadelphia Inquirer” columnist John Grogan’s memoirs about the 13 years that his family and he spent with a Lab. Basically, Hollywood makes two kinds of dog movies: those where the dog lives and those where the dog dies. Smuggle in a box of Kleenex if you see “Marley & Me.” Mind you, “Marley & Me” amounts to suburban schmaltz, nowhere as realistic as the Disney classic “Old Yeller” (1957) where the boy shot his dog after the animal contracted rabies. Despite some mild profanity, “Marley & Me” qualifies as family-oriented fare. Indeed, this aw-shucks, PG-rated, feel-good flick about a loyal but neurotic Alpha Lab will amuse you and make you chuckle, even though it wears out its welcome with its two-hour plus running time. Aside from one scene involving a dog obedience trainer, you shouldn’t have to explain anything to your little ones.

John (Owen Wilson of “Drillbit Taylor”) and Jenny Grogan (Jennifer Aniston of “Derailed”) marry in snowswept Michigan and promptly move to a warmer climate. They settle in Palm Beach, Florida. Jenny lands a job as a features writer at The Palm Beach Post. John’s college chum Sebastian Tunney (Eric Dane of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”) gets him an interview at The Sun-Sentinel. Grumpy Sun-Sentinel editor Arnie Klein (Alan Arkin of “Inspector Clouseau”) hires John on the spot and sends him off to cover stories about speed bumps, methane fires, and the latest Rotary Club row. Jenny likes to make lists, while John tries to accommodate those lists. No sooner has our cute couple settled into a three-bedroom house than Sebastian warns John that Jenny will want a baby unless he sideswipes her biological clock. Sebastian suggests John buy her a dog. John sells the dog idea belatedly to Jenny after he blindfolds and takes his wife out to a dog farm. They pick what comes to be known as ‘the clearance dog.’ Jenny has to cover an out-of-town trial, so John gets to pick up the pooch. On his way home, John hears Bob Marley reggae music on the radio and decides that the musician’s last name is ideal for his hound. The Grogans learn quickly that life with Marley won’t be a picnic. Marley devours dog food like a glutton. Moreover, this incorrigible cur chews up pillows, bras, sofa cushions, and even Jenny’s necklace. He likes to chase the UPS man, the mail man, and he steals a next door neighbor’s turkey dinner.

When director David Frankel and his scribes aren’t depicting Marley’s next prank, they dwell on the ups and downs of domesticity. The Grogans have a tough time getting their family started, but they wind up with three kids, two boys and a girl. Jenny quits her job to play house mom and discovers the toll that some young moms encounter after having kids. John sacrifices his dream of being a reporter and reluctantly accepts a cushy columnist’s job. As it turns out, John’s editor Arnie loves our hero’s columns about his rambunctious yellow Alpha Lab who destroys restaurants, causes traffic jams, and assaults dog obedience trainers. Anybody who loves Kathleen Turner had better be prepared for a shock. Turner turns up in a cameo as Ms. Kornblut, gravelly-voiced battle axe, far from the delectable dame of “Romancing the Stone.” Marley drags Kornblut around on his leash and then . . . well, you’ll have to take the little ones aside and tell them about the birds and the bees. Eventually, Marley grows old and we know that something dire is in store.

It’s difficult to believe that the real-life Grogans lived this sunny lifestyle. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston maintain their fluffy blond mops and slender waistlines. Rarely do they blow a fuse. Occasionally, Jenny screams about Marley’s problem with thunderstorms. He howls like a conscientious bloodhound that has just cornered a raccoon in a tree and he doesn’t stop until the rain stops. Eric Dane plays John’s best friend and babe magnet Sebastian who snags all the great newspaper stories and eventually becomes a New York Times reporter. John envies Sebastian and then when John leaves the Sun-Sentinel for The Philadelphia Inquirer to write real news, he realizes how much he loved being a columnist. Nobody told him how to write his own column and everybody loved to read it. It’s also pretty hard to believe that John Grogan pulled down the kind of salary that enabled him to buy a sprawling house with a swimming pool in Florida and then later an even bigger one in rural Pennsylvania. Reportedly, from young puppy to old dog, Frankel had to use as many as 22 dogs to impersonate Marley.

As far as canine comedies go, “Marley & Me” doesn’t spring many surprises, but this harmless potboiler about a bad-to-the-bone dog does a good job of straining on your heart strings.