December 21, 2008 / 11:28 PM / 10 years ago

"Marley & Me" needs more than just pet tricks

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The canine hero in “Marley & Me” bears scant resemblance to Rin Tin Tin, Lassie or Old Yeller. He is, in fact, “the world’s worst dog.”

Of course, he’s just as lovable as the best ones. Fox’s Christmas Day release, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, is all emotional rush from cute puppy goofs to Marley’s final (and seemingly endless) death scene. Yet seldom does a studio release feature so little drama — and not much comedy either other than when the dog clowns around.

Director David Frankel seems to specialize in movies dominated by a single, irresistible force. His blockbuster “The Devil Wears Prada” pretended to be about office politics and a bad boss but women flocked to it for one reason — the costumes. Similarly, whatever “Marley & Me” wants to be about — the challenges of marriage or the balancing act between career and family — gets subsumed by pet tricks. Dog lovers won’t care, and that basically is the audience for “Marley & Me.” From Fox’s standpoint, it may be enough.

The screenplay by two Hollywood heavyweights, Scott Frank and Don Roos, derives from journalist John Grogan’s memoir about his young family’s amazingly untrained yellow Labrador. As he (Wilson) and wife Jenny (Aniston) pursue newspaper careers, and when babies start to arrive and Jenny turns into a full-time mom. Meanwhile, their dog consumes sofas, eats dry-wall, drinks from toilets, overturns garbage, breaks everything and swallows a valuable necklace.

The dog is shown in one sequence failing obedience school despite instructor Kathleen Turner’s stern demeanor. But the film never explains why the family failed to train Marley.

Since the dog endangers the small children in one scene, this particular nonchalance toward canine behavior can be construed as highly irresponsible. It might have helped if the filmmakers had worked out a scene showing that Marley, as dogs usually do, behaves differently around children than adults.

More troubling from a storytelling viewpoint is the total absence of conflict. An hour into the film, Jenny has a bad day with screaming kids and a misbehaving dog so she flips out, yelling at John and momentarily banishing Marley. But it’s over by nightfall. Otherwise, John’s editor (Alan Arkin) is pleased with his work as a columnist, John and Jenny love each other and the healthy family prospers. Marley’s erratic and explosive activities supply all the suspense, action and drama.

Location scouts in south Florida and Pennsylvania have found great homes and eye-catching landscapes for Marley to romp in. Wilson and Aniston nicely convey a compatible, loving couple that enjoys the challenges of parenthood in contrast to his bachelor buddy (“Grey’s Anatomy’s” Eric Dane). And the 22 dogs and puppies that portray Marley and myriad children that play the three Grogan siblings as they grow all jell harmoniously.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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