Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Review--Marley & Me

Marley & Me
directed by David Frankel
written by Scott Frank and Don Roos
based on the book by John Grogan
starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Dane, Kathleen Turner, Alan Arkin

Much of the interest in this film comes via Marley the dog’s mad capers and very naughty antics as he proceeds to tear to shreds anything that he can gain access to. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is drab, dismal, and utterly devoid of even a semblance of energy.

John Grogan (Wilson) and his wife Jennifer (Aniston) are a typical couple who live a quiet life without any serious complications. John surprises Jennifer and takes her blindfolded to a dog kennel where she chooses Marley who is cheaper than the other dogs ostensibly for disciplinary reasons. Marley is a bit more rambunctious than other labs and makes his presence felt on the very first day he is home. The film early on is basically a series of scenes where Marley acts up and destroys this or that thing. Then he grows up and soon enough the Grogans have three moppets to attend to. That’s about it, really.

Nothing particularly noteworthy occurs in this film. John becomes a columnist for his local paper and eventually takes a job as a reporter in Philly. Jennifer quits her job to take care of the kids full time. Without Marley to spruce things up this would be an almost unwatchable film. It’s just an excruciatingly boring family who have been reduced to a life with no color, no adventure. Yes, they seem to be living a full life or at least the life that nature demands out of humans. They have spawned and have moved into a sizable home where they can slowly degenerate together and eventually say goodbye to the children who along with the dog provide the only real entertainment the family can muster. Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps it’s everything. If so then the film could have at least shown how such an admirable life can be infused with a little demonstrable joy. The kids are great but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be thrills along the way.

Marley is charming in his way despite his penchant for eating non-food items he finds all over the house. As long as the dog is on screen, the film maintains its energy but as soon as it turns to the humans it quickly dissipates. It’s as simple as that. There just isn’t a story here that is worth telling. The kids are annoyingly cute and certainly draw in the families who want to see something that reflects their lives back to them. Kids love funny dog behavior especially when the dog in question is doing things he isn’t supposed to. Admittedly it is great fun to watch Marley misbehave but his stunts do nothing to enliven the people in the film.

Building a film around a nearly psychotic dog is a fine idea if one creates a vital and entertaining story as well. This is an example of how this process can go horribly wrong. These are dead characters who bring nothing to the film and it’s a shame because this could have been a very effective comedy in the right hands. Instead we have a story that doesn’t matter and many scenes of a temperamental canine who is easily the most charismatic character in the entire film.

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are capable actors who both have demonstrated their abilities to play a wide range of emotions. Here they cruise along gamely without straying from a particular middling course. Their characters seem resigned to their fates and perhaps this is the accepted way to deal with as many life changes as happen to this family over a relatively short period of time. Kids tend to become the entire focus and it is certainly true in this case. Yet, the parents in this scenario just seem to fade away and their personalities wither. Yes, it’s a family and most families aren’t particularly thrilling all the time but in this case the life seems to be sucked out of the parents and it doesn’t make for a very compelling film in the end.

Of course, this film could have been much more if it dared to examine the pressures that are a necessary component of the familial dynamic. It just doesn’t dig deep enough into the struggles and distress that are experienced routinely in the relationship and as one attempts to provide a sensible structure for the little ones as they grow into little independent selves with their own agendas and secret wants. In this film the children are merely props and none of them come off as singular personalities in their own right. They are just there to look appropriately cute when the scene calls for it but otherwise their presence is not truly felt. After all, this is a film about man’s best friend for better or worse and the dog takes center stage.

The film follows a natural course straight through to the end. It stays with Marley and focuses on every stage of his life. He naturally ages and his interests in causing chaos wane dramatically. The final twenty minutes of this film are deeply moving and suggest what kind of film this might have been if it weren’t attempting to please such a wide audience. It’s dark and brooding and serious concerns are dealt with appropriately. It’s difficult, painful and worth holding on to. If only the film could have been made independently on a smaller budget with a film maker who understands the importance of creating characters who aren’t utterly overshadowed by the manic opportunism displayed by the film’s bona fide star. Then it might have had real bite and it’s conclusion subsequently would have possessed more weight. Instead we are left with many engrossing moments that all involve a dog doing what dogs do when following the edicts of their instinct but little else.

Overall, this is a film that works very hard to reach a wide swathe of the movie going public. It is the kind of film that leaves no traces once it has been seen and the next big family entertainment presents itself. There was potential for a more probing type of story but this was thwarted by a flimsy plot that loses itself somewhere along the way. The dog is not the problem, of course. He routinely pulls out all the stops and his tomfoolery routinely brings down the house. Still, there is much more than a hyperactive dog to a story worth telling. There must be characters worth engaging with. There must be moments that truly connect with people in a way that is indescribable. Sure this is passable entertainment and the dog garners laughs from the children. But there is nothing to hold on to here. There is nothing worth remembering.

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