A word of warning to parents out there who have been seduced by the adorable-puppy-in-Christmas-bow advertising of “Marley & Me” and are considering taking their youngsters to see it: Don’t. The dog — and this may technically count as a spoiler, even though the movie is based on a best-selling book — dies. And “Marley & Me” milks audience grief (and will traumatize children) more than “Bambi” and “Old Yeller” combined.
I can report first hand that a veteran film critic of the crusty and cantankerous stripe came close to walking out of the screening I attended — and not because he didn’t like it. And even as I was rolling my eyes over how manipulative this movie gets, I had to choke back a few tears myself over just two words spoken by the family’s eldest child at the climactic doggy funeral.
If only everything leading up to Marley’s demise were nearly so compelling. Despite having been labored over by sharp screenwriters Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) and Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”), “Marley & Me” feels like “She’s Having a Baby” with some “Marmaduke” cartoons grafted onto it.
Take the dog out of the equation, and you’re left with the not-very-interesting marital and career travails of John Grogan (Owen Wilson) and his wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), newlyweds and recent college grads who have just left Michigan for the sunny climes of south Florida. They both get newspaper jobs — and the fact that this is a movie about people finding work and getting promotions in the print media industry already makes “Marley & Me,” set in the early ’90s, feel like a far-off period piece — and settle into their first house.
John’s rakish co-worker Sebastian (Eric Dane) suggests that the best way to hit the snooze button on Jennifer’s biological clock is to bring a puppy in the house, and so the Grogans adopt Marley, an adorable hound who will grow up to be — as the real-life Grogan called him in his hit book — “the world’s worst dog.” Cue leg-humping, dinner snatching, furniture chewing, et. al.
The Grogans finally start having children — after suffering a miscarriage, another plot point that makes “Marley” a tough sit for the kids — and move up to Boca Raton, then north to Pennsylvania. And Marley seems to get bigger and more unruly. (Kathleen Turner has a thankless appearance as a disciplinarian dog trainer who throws up her hands in the face of Marley’s anarchy.)
And then, well… the years pass. Which does things to dogs, no matter how beloved.
It’s not that “Marley & Me” doesn’t come by its tears honestly, but once you get beyond “see the nice doggie, see the nice doggie die,” there’s not a whole lot going on here. Wilson and Aniston are serviceably charming, but the Grogans and their minor life transitions aren’t interesting enough to keep us in our seats. The 22 dogs who play Marley — as well as Alan Arkin, as John’s editor — steal what little show there is. “Marley & Me” is too energetic and well-intentioned to rate as a dog, but it’s no best-in-show either.