The American family, in recent years, has generally not fared well in the cinema. While movies tend to glamorize the creation of a family, the romance leading up to marriage and having children, they often end up portraying the subsequent years as dark times where marriages devolve into diplomatic exercises in hiding deceit and children grow up completely unable to connect with the people who spawn them. Now, in contrast to these tales of suburban horror, emerges, Marley & Me, a film that actually manages to show audiences that despite all the angst, American families can turn out to be functional and happy. The approach has some major flaws, but the final product turns out to be pretty refreshing.
Marley & Me is based on the collection of essays from humor columnist John Grogan. It documents his life at the beginning of his marriage with his wife Jenny. Grogan, getting hints from his wife about having a kid and not quite ready to deal with it, decides to get her a dog. This dog, who they name Marley, turns out to be the worst dog in the world, an unholy force of teeth and saliva that chews through everything in its path. But Marley also proves to be a loyal friend, and a source of inspiration for John’s writing. And as the young couple grow older and they have their family and go through the ups and downs of couplehood, Marley is there, both a headache and a blessing.
There aren’t really a lot of movies that start out with a happy young couple. The normal rules of drama would have us believe that the thrill is all in the chase, but here’s a movie that defies that convention, and it works mostly because of it. What the film achieves through its adherence to small matters is resonance. The best parts of this film are the ones that audiences will recognize: the extra five minutes spent in the car before coming in the chaos of home life, the point in the career where you realize that what you thought you wanted might not be the best place for you. And it’s all tied together by the almost universal experience of having a pet.
It’s an interesting choice, though it has its share of problems as well. The conflicts it sets up are compelling and relatable, but their resolutions are vaguely unsatisfying. After they get introduced, they get kind of glossed over, and we miss out on seeing the characters make the tougher choices outside their problems with their dog. It’s sweet and all, but the movie doesn’t take that extra step to develop some form of insight. Filmmaking-wise, everything’s fine. The naturalistic look works well for the movie’s low-key story.
Owen Wilson has his share of detractors, but he is definitely capable of doing fine work. It appears that his recent experience with depression has lent him a tinge of melancholy to go along with his natural happy-go-lucky image. There’s a little twist in the corners of his mouth that reveal a gravity that the movie benefits greatly from. Jennifer Aniston is always a pleasant presence, though she has a tendency to fall back on the same facial expressions. Alan Arkin steals every scene that he’s in, though at this point, that’s pretty much expected.
Boil it all down, and Marley & Me is just another dog movie. We’ve seen stories about rambunctious, incorrigible dogs before, where people learn to love them despite the chaos that they bring into their lives. But Marley and Me does end up feeling a bit different, a bit closer to home, a bit more personal, just a bit more true all in all. It’s a missing a few pieces, but the picture is still a pretty good one.