Friday, January 02, 2009

Marley and Me (movie review 2009)

Want a measure of how much America craves a sense of comfort heading into 2009? Marley and Me was number one at the box office for Christmas week. I’d mention that the most famous dog in movie history, Rin Tin Tin was a huge star during the depression. Lassie (first a movie in 1943) was originally a story very much rooted in the British depression. Okay, here’s my pet (heh heh) theory, depressions are about a generalized failure of trust in society. Dog movies are about an irreducible trust between a dog and its family. If you can’t trust the government, your bank, or your employer, you can at least trust your dog to love you no matter what the world does to you. The release of Marley and Me couldn’t have been timed any better.

I had no choice about seeing the movie. I happen to like dog movies. My wife absolutely loves dog movies (we have two dogs). Our daughter who's home from college also happens to love dogs and she has watched her DVD collection of every Friends episode ever broadcast a minimum of four times each. We’re also huge fans of the movie Meet the Parents (it helps that Jay Roach the director lived two doors down from me in college). When we decided to go to a movie together on New Year’s Day, I knew we’d agree to Marley and Me. Besides, I’d recently resoundingly lost a family argument about watching the DVD of Sweeney Todd (I love Sondheim, I didn’t like the movie).

With the possible exception of Fluke with Matthew Modine, an exploration of the Hindu view of reincarnation narrated by a dog, all modern dog movies adhere to a common formula. There’s a dog in some form who is somehow irresistibly adorable. (Even Turner and Hooch ultimately goes there). There’s a family. There’s usually a cute kid. At some point, the dog’s status with the family gets jeopardized either physically (see Bingo, a personal favorite) or because those who run the family fail to see said dog’s virtues (the most recent remake of Lassie). Ultimately, the entire family comes to appreciate the dog and in the process they come closer together between dozens of cute dog shots.

Anyway, whether it’s Because of Winn Dixie, My Dog Skip, Beethoven installment 27, Benji Sells Junk Bonds, Air Bud and the WWF, dog movies are reassuringly predictable. Marley and Me, based on columns and a book by John Grogan (now the editor of an organic gardening magazine) does not stray from the recipe except that this one is seen from Dad’s point of view instead of one of the kids. I agree with most of the critics. As these things go, Marley and Me was done pretty well at least partly because they didn’t over indulge the clichés of the genre. Marley, the world’s mot rambunctious Labrador Retrieiver, is actually more or less believable. He’s not magically smart, doesn’t get involved in too many Rube Goldberg-like situations though there’s a scene where Marley mostly gets out of a very small car on the expressway, and the plot is generally free of anthropomorphic miracles. In addition, there are remarkably few diabetes inducing lines in the script until the end.

From a marketing standpoint, probably the most ingenious thing the producers did was to cast Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as “mom and dad”. Up to now, Owen Wilson has played goofballs. In this one, he’s a reformed goofball turned family man. Jennifer Aniston’s basic role since Friends has been to be someone’s would be hot/cute girlfriend. These were Aniston’s last five theatrically released movies 1) The Breakup 2) Rumor Has It 3) Friends With Money 4) Derailed 5) Along Came Polly. These were Owen Wilson’s last five 1) Drillbit Taylor 2) Darjeeling Unlimited 3) Night at the Museum (believe it or not they’ve made a sequel) 4) You and Me and Dupree 5) Wedding Crashers. Yeah, Wedding Crashers was a huge hit, but the two were a collective one for ten with their most recent movie efforts.

Fascinatingly, both Wilson and Aniston have stayed on the “A” list largely because of who they’ve dated or married in the last few years. Wilson’s had a tumultuous relationship with Kate Hudson (more or less the same thing as Jennifer Aniston only a better actress and a more famous Hollywood parent than Aniston’s soap opera dad). In particular, there’s been a lot in the tabloids about Wilson’s capacity to handle fame which naturally encourages more articles and photos that make him even more famous.

Aniston’s played Debbie Reynolds in this generation’s version of the Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor-Debbie Reynolds triangle. The one difference this time is that Brad and Angelina are the ones who appear to be into having all the kids. In addition, Aniston’s had a series of high-profile rebound relationships that include Vince Vaughn, Wilson’s co-star from Wedding Crashers.

One of the adult pleasures of watching Marley and Me is that it’s your basic dog movie, but there’s this whole subtext of tabloid fodder to watch for in the movie. The chemistry between Aniston and Wilson is quite good. They may seem believable as a couple because they’ve been half a couple in a long run of more or less interchangeable comedies so there’s something irresistibly iconic about the pairing. I was disappointed that Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy) who gets cast as (can you believe this?) a good looking- womanizing guy who happens to be so good at what he does he can’t settle down romantically didn’t get an opportunity to make a pass at Aniston in the plot, but I suppose that sort of thing doesn’t happen much in dog movies. Basically dog movies consist of an endless series of dog pratfalls, something which provides the bulk of the script here since the premise is that Marley is the world’s least controllable dog.

Part of the problem for me was that while Wilson has convincing chemistry with the dog, I didn’t think that Aniston did. Most of her scenes with Marley felt like someone had dropped Shiloh Pitt in her arms and told her to pretend to be his mom. In addition, there’s my concern that the upper half of her face didn’t move for the first 80 minutes of the movie which may be a sign of too much cosmetic surgery. In the Angelina vs. Jennifer war, there’s been a running rumor that Aniston’s personality isn’t all sunshine and light when she’s not pretending to be Rachel Green. Fascinatingly, her best acting in this movie comes when she’s doing an extended take on post-partum depression.

The rest of the movie, I kept feeling as if Aniston was in some sort of contest to be the hottest mom yet in a Dog Movie. In fact, this is the only dog movie I can remember with an actual nude scene. I have my prejudices about these things and imo she loses to Diane Lane from My Dog Skip and Nancy Travis in Fluke should they ever have such a category in the People’s Choice Awards. I would say that she gets to wear any number of fetching (I couldn’t resist) outfits that play on her talent for projecting wholesome and sexy at the same time. More seriously, I don’t think she had the necessary humility to do what the role required which was to carry off a convincing transformation/progression from hot bride in the bathtub scene that opens the movie to motherly and loving it towards the end. I have to say the jury is still out on her ability to crpss from ingenue to ingenaulder.

I do believe that Jennifer Aniston’s quite a good actress in her range, but her range is relatively narrow and it’s time-limited. While she’s certainly competent in Marley, you can feel the tension of her trying to look 20 while playing 40. Anyway, she’s not alone in this dilemma if you’ve ever seen Searching for Deborah Winger and I think there’s a very strong argument that she’s making the right choice in terms of the viability of her career. Anyway, I’ve yet to see a movie where I was persuaded that anyone should cast Jennifer Aniston in a movie that called for her to be something other than “cute”. Older women in the movies can be quite beautiful a la Isabella Rosselini, but I’m not sure “cute” is going to work in the next ten years of Aniston’s career. Again, I distinguish between a career as an actress and a career as a celebrity. In today’s culture, the latter may be far more important and I think she’s actually well aware of that.

Wilson, on the other hand, has suffered from problems with “discipline” as a performer. He’s good at goofy, but he’s kind of like a movie version of Kobe Bryant. Kobe’s much better when he doesn’t dominate the ball, works to make his teammates better, and listens to Phil Jackson. Wilson tends to be better when he keeps the goofiness within the white lines and lets the movie have a plot, scenes, and a director. Marley and Me indulges Wilson just enough and it’s genuinely fun watching him play dad and husband. Of course, male actors don’t have to deal with the whole “look young and boyish” thing as they make the switchover to middle-aged roles. It also occurs to me that if you were to do an animated version of this movie, Owen Wilson would be a perfect voice for Marley. In fact, it's part of the genius of this movie. Wilson stays on track because the dog is playing his usual role.

Anyway, Wilson’s scenes with the dog make you feel like Marley really is his dog. There’s a scene near the end with the vet where Wilson’s chemistry with Marley is especially evident. Wilson feels Marley’s stomach and bends his head down to the dog’s chest with remarkable naturalness.

In the meantime, Alan Arkin plays a curmudgeonly boss pretty much the way one might imagine Alan Arkin would handle the role. Kathleen Turner, last in a Florida-based movie as the femme fatale in Body Heat, plays against type as a dog trainer who meets her match in Marley. Usually, these kinds of movies are filled with terrific character actors. Both Arkin, Turner, and others are okay, but hardly memorable unless you’re into being horrified by Turner’s transformation.

One of the themes of Marley and Me is that life is more of a journey than a plan. It’s done a bit self-consciously, but they do bring it off. This too appears to be a perfectly timed message for a movie going public whose career and other plans have drastically changed in the last few months. In addition, the movie is filled with bits of lifestyle porn, great houses, nice clothes, etc. Somehow journalists in movies always manage lives and lifestyles that seem impossible in real life. You’d never know that one of the biggest victims in this recession has been the daily newspaper. Marley and Me pulls off a subtle anachronistic feel of a time when Americans didn’t have to worry about all that without making the viewer self-conscious of the sub-text. That was also the "whitest" take on modern day Miami I think I've ever seen.

Bottom line, dog movies generally don’t win Academy Awards except for Babe which after all was really a pig movie with a co-star dog who talked like Clint Eastwood. I’ve seen both movies and Marley and Me is no Babe. At a time though when hardly anything about American society is living up to its hype, Marley and Me meets its own modest expectations. It’s diverting, heartwarming, and I can see Owen Wilson making the jump to suburban dad roles if he wants to go that route. Anyway, if dogs sometimes form the basis of your interaction as a family, it’s worth seeing.



At 1/03/2009 05:59:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

This had to be better than Australia.

Mr. Benny considered bolting our movie to see this one. I'm still not convinced by your review it would have been a much better choice, but my comment is not a reflection of your review.

At 1/03/2009 06:26:00 AM, Blogger Marianne said...

y, very, very interesting article. I laughed almost all the way through it.

At 1/03/2009 06:27:00 AM, Blogger Marianne said...

Apparently, this morning, I cannot type. I meant of course to say: "Very, very very interesting . . . "

At 1/03/2009 08:46:00 AM, Blogger BeckEye said...

I loved this movie, but I'm a sucker for dogs. And although Jennifer Aniston tends to get on my nerves, I actually thought she did a good job. I liked her in "The Break-Up" too. I actually like when she plays the nice girl with a little bit of an edge. The nice girl gets too monotonous and boring and when she tries to go too edgy, like in the abysmal "Derailed," it just doesn't work.

The only thing I don't get is how they're billing this as a COMEDY. I cried my freaking eyes out at this movie, and really, only the first 1/2 hour to an hour were funny. The rest was about how hard how marriage can be, how having children sucks the life out of you, and how, eventually, everyone and everything dies. It was a good movie, but I don't think it really belongs in the comedy genre. Dramedy at the very least.

This didn't make me cry as much as "My Dog Skip" did though. I couldn't even SEE during the last minutes of that movie. I guess because it reminded me so much of my old dog and I watched it just a few months after he died. I just saw it again on TV this summer though, and I still bawled at the ending.

At 1/03/2009 05:45:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

If you were in the mood to see Australia, Marley and Me wouldn't have done it. If you don't love dogs dog movies, or need to see a "family" movie, it's perfect for DVD.

thanks....I just found it funny how similar our takes on the movie were.

I think one difference was that I'd seen the reviews and knew that it was supposed to be a dramedy and had been warned about the "death" thing.
I agree, Jennifer Aniston is better when she's a little edgy. I tend to think Derailed was just a bad idea for a movie.
I liked My Dog Skip, partly because my daughter was the right age then. If I had to pick a dog movie, it would probably be Bingo. I should also mention that the "Lucky" part of Chance Lucky got the name because one of the puppies in 101 Dalmatians was "Lucky" so our family has a connection to dog movies.

At 1/03/2009 09:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marley and Me is money to a great extent because Jennifer Aniston is money; Owen Wilson is... not so much

At 1/03/2009 09:11:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Coffee Buzz,
I think that's fair enough, I do think there are people who will see a movie because Jennifer Aniston's in it. Other than Bruce Almighty though I think this is her first movie that's been a big hit.

At 1/03/2009 11:42:00 PM, Blogger Marianne said...

Beckeye: I don't think Jen can do heavy dramatic roles (though I heard she was pretty good in "The Good Girl"), she's much better off playing sassy.

Chancelucky: I didn't know "Bruce Almighty" was a hit! I actually think having Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston in the same movie would become pretty stifling -- because the acting of both these actors is so "transparent." That is, I can definitely see them "acting," rather than getting subsumed into a role . . .

At 1/04/2009 05:57:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Bruce Almighty grossed something like 242 million domestically and 482 worldwide. That doesn't mean that it was a good movie or that I liked it personally though

I think it's just hard to play a tv role for 10 years and play against type in the movies. It often has nothing to do with the actual quality of the acting, it's very hard to shake the expectations.

I also think there's a tendency to underrate the timing/reaction shot comedy that Aniston's really quite good at. I do agree though that she's not well suited for straight on drama, though I'd be willing to be surprised.

At 1/04/2009 04:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the best thing about this movie was the dog. Aniston is so boring. She needs to quit making movies and go back to t.v. Every movie shes in she plays Rachel. As for this movie you could have cast ANYONE and it would have been a hit because people are dog crazy here in the U.S. Im one of them! But if you want to see some good acting also see Australia. Its GREAT!!!

At 1/04/2009 06:23:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks for dropping by anonymous I'll probably see Australia on DVD

At 1/06/2009 03:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wont be sorry! :-)

At 1/07/2009 01:26:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I assume you're referring to seeing Australia (the movie)...thanks for stopping by.

At 1/08/2009 12:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup Australia was great! Im not a big Kidman fan but she did real well in this. I like dropping by, this is a great site! :-)

At 1/08/2009 02:23:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks anonymous...It's nice to have you dropping by here.

At 2/02/2009 07:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for your new American Idol recaps - surely you're watching this season - and in finding them missing, decided I'd just browse around some. Comments about Marley and Me: the book was way better...really fun to listen to on audio while driving. I love dogs, and the movie was okay, but I actually found myself thinking "die, already!" by the end. The dying just went on too long. I hope you've seen Benjamin Button - I think you'd really like it. Now, how about some AI recaps!

At 2/24/2009 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I haven't decided about this year, just knew that I wasn't going to do either the auditions or Hollywood week. I'm leaning towards starting once the finals start.
Last week, the one thing I noticed was that I was having a hard time figuring out how they'd have one male and one female for the finals, as opposed to thinking how could they leave so many of these people out?


Post a Comment

<< Home