The lifespan of an incorrigible pooch is at the heart of "Marley & Me."
"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," Noel Coward observed, and the same goes for movies. "Marley & Me" is shamelessly manipulative yet undeniably effective. Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") adapts John Grogan's sentimental bestseller with no artistic pretensions beyond alternately making you feel like your heart is caving in, then injecting you with a gigantic syringe of good cheer.
Those unfamiliar with the book may come to "Marley" anticipating a canine comedy, an expectation encouraged by the film's advertising, which is heavy on adorable high jinks. And there are plenty of moments that are simply physical comedy, which stand or fall on their ability to get a laugh. (Three-quarters of them are variations on chewing valuables, and they work fine.)
There's a good deal more to the story, though. "Marley" cleverly uses the lifespan of a couple's pet to illustrate the passages that mark their relationship. Journalists John (Owen Wilson) and Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) move up the professional ladder, make life-defining tradeoffs between work and personal satisfaction, raise children and enter middle age. The value of the story is that it is so completely typical. It represents the norm of American married life, evolving over a decade or so of success and sacrifice, joy and frustration.
At the starting gate, Jenny is the more promising character, a confident, accomplished reporter for the Miami Herald, writing big pieces about important issues while John struggles to find his footing as a writer at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. As a trial run to test their suitability as parents, the honeymooning couple buy a golden lab puppy that John christens Marley. (The skittish pup finds reggae soothing.) The dog is a charmer but resistant to training, and freaks out big time whenever there's a thunderstorm, which occurs like clockwork in the Sunshine State.
John's accounts of his incorrigible pooch prove more compelling than his straight reporting, and his editor (the sublimely dry Alan Arkin) makes him a columnist. His career begins to pull ahead of Jenny's in the two-income relay race, but he envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane), an adventurer reporting from the world's trouble spots. When babies start arriving, John also feels pangs of jealousy about Sebastian's bachelor freedom. Jenny surrenders her full-time job, and money troubles descend at what should be a purely happy time. John's editor begins doubling as a marriage counselor, offering a blend of horse sense, half-sense and nonsense.
Through it all, Marley functions as an emblem of the family's bond, an inextricable knot of love and trouble. John frequently calls Marley "the worst dog in the world," but he could never abandon him. In one memorable passage, John must hose down Marley's droppings to find a gold locket the dog gobbled out of Jenny's hand. There you have visual symbolism at its purest.
At 40 and 39 respectively, Wilson and Aniston make unconvincing late-20s newlyweds. They age into their roles persuasively, though, as do the various child actors who play their three kids and the 22 dogs that portray Marley from pup to senior citizen.
Marley doesn't emerge as a Lassie-class animal performer, but he serves his purpose well. For all the drool and damaged drywall he leaves in his wake, the family dog is a pure-hearted fountain of devotion and loyalty. Frankel works our heartstrings like Yo-Yo Ma, gently nudging us into a strong rapport with the characters, and by the time John haltingly apologizes to the aged, ailing Marley -- "you're NOT the worst dog in the world" -- many an eye will need wiping.
Amazing how touching mundane movies can be.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186