I didn't think too much about Marley & Me when it was out on the big screen; I missed the press screenings before it opened, didn't take the time to see it in theaters over the holidays, but I kept hearing a background rumble about how surprisingly good it was, even though it looked like a movie about a dog. It's not like I let that make up my mind for me before I saw it — a bad thing for a film critic to do — but it did make me curious: Could a film about a dog — not a killer St. Bernard, not a district attorney who turns into a dog, just a regular dog — actually be good?
But then I watched Marley & Me and noticed the names of the writers who had adapted John Grogan's book: Scott Frank and Don Roos. Frank has written scripts like the smart, tricky Out of Sight and the wild, weird Minority Report; Roos has written caustic, clever indie comedies like Happy Endings and The Opposite of Sex. I rubbed my eyes; it was as if I'd walked into a local hamburger shack and found superstar chef Tom Collichio working the grill, or went to the mini-golf place out by the highway and found Tiger Woods handing me my short putter and score card. So while Marley & Me is just the story of a family and their dog — and no dog owner will accept there's any such thing at 'just' a story of a family and their dog — it's surprisingly well-written, funny and smart and tough and moving and sincere and clever. Sure, it's about a dog. But Marley & Me is also about the things life gives us, and the things life takes away, and how one can help with the other.
John Grogan (Owen Wilson) is a newlywed would-be journalist following his wife Jen (Jennifer Aniston) to her new job in Miami. He gets a job at a rival paper, they get a house, and she starts muttering about kids; as a pure maneuver of deflection, he gets a dog. "Girls are $300, boys $275," the owner of the puppy place says. "That one's $200." And, demonstrating how there are some things you shouldn't cut corners on, they take home the "clearance puppy," who is soon re-named Marley and recognized as "the worst dog in the world." The unspoken joke, though, is that Marley — cute and unreliable, energetic and untrainable — is a little more like John than anyone would like to admit.
And that's it, really: John and Jen have triumphs and tragedies; they have kids who grow up; they change jobs; they move; they fight and make-up; they worry about money and how Marley eats everything. But there's something about Marley & Me that can't just be written off to the charm of Grogan's story or the charisma Aniston and Wilson bring to their parts or how clumsily, earnestly cute the many dogs playing Marley are; in many ways, Marley & Me is a movie about trying to get by in the world without going crazy, and how caring for someone, or some thing, outside of you can make you a person who's more worthy of others' care. And when John's boss Arnie (Alan Arkin, great as he always is) says to John "Sometimes life has a better idea," it evokes John Lennon's saying how "Life is what happens while you're making other plans," and we nod, and we smile, because it's true.
And, it should be pointed out, Marley & Me is amazingly well-made, from the smart script to David Frankel's light, deft direction, from Wilson and Aniston's sincere, invested performances (neither John nor Jen is perfect, and Wilson and Aniston dig deeper than you might think to portray that) to the great supporting cast including Alan Arkin as John's boss, Kathleen Turner as an exasperated obedience trainer and Eric Dane as the friend who gets the life John maybe thinks he wanted. The DVD is loaded with extras — deleted scenes, a gag reel, information on the various dogs the film used — but it also, quite unexpectedly, includes a featurette on how adopting a dog instead of buying from a breeder can save their life and change yours, a great message in an unexpected place. I wouldn't call Marley & Me "great," but it is good – and more importantly, "good" in a couple important senses of the word, kind and forgiving and generous and real and sincere. I didn't just feel lucky to finally have seen Marley & Me; after Marley & Me, I felt lucky to be alive, with all of the sweet and sad and hard and happy things that entails. Not bad for a movie about a dog; not bad for a movie, period.