There are a lot of reasons to hate John Grogan’s Marley & Me. Start with how a simple and slight life story became an international literary phenomenon. Continue with the dozens of copycat mutt memoirs that followed, by everyone from poet Mark Doty to the local dog whisperer. And then there’s its transformation into a Christmas blockbuster, starring “it”-girl Jennifer Aniston no less (“This Christmas, heel the love”—oh, please).
All those (and perhaps more) are reasons that I’ve never read Grogan’s book. But the film version of Marley & Me, directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) with a script by Scott Frank, is an unassuming surprise, probably because only an idiot would try to make Grogan’s story more than it is—a sweet slice of life that is more about the “me” than about he dog.
“Me,” of course, is Grogan himself, a struggling and newlywed news reporter in South Florida. When we first meet him, he’s starting a new job and a new marriage, and he buys his new bride a puppy to keep things interesting around the two career household. We follow the family through the duration of the dog’s life—three kids, three houses, assorted job changes—and you surely know how it ends.
Frankel could have easily made this a sort of Beethoven for grownups, playing up the canine hijinks for easy laughs. And there are certainly some slapstick set pieces to leaven the story along the way. But the films heart is in its portrait of a contemporary American family, with its joys, anxieties, triumphs and minor tragedies.
The performances are generally first rate. As Grogan’s editor, Alan Arkin is a delicious curmudgeon. Eric Dane plays Grogan’s friend and journalistic rival with a sort of wooden smugness, but his character is a simple cipher anyway. And Aniston is Aniston, wry and warm according to the film’s fashion.
But this is Owen Wilson’s movie, and he shows himself a true movie star. Free from the preciousness of the Wes Anderson characters he’s played over the years (The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tannenbaums), or the slapstick comedies he’s been saddled with (Wedding Crashers), Wilson shines with an Everyman warmth and humanity that reminds you of a Texas-style Jimmy Stewart. Marley & Me is a shaggy dog story in some ways, but it’s really about the shagginess of life, the pleasure and uncertainty of its chaotic ride, and the right living that comes when you open your heart to it.