It's a relief that Marley & Me, the film of John Grogan's newspaperman-and-his-dog memoir, isn't better. Director David Frankel, stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston and a very cute dog might try to wring tears out of us in the weepy third act, but the almost lifeless movie that comes before guarantees those tears won't come.
Marley aims to draw life lessons out of years spent with an impulsive, untrained and "untrainable" dog. It promises whimsy and high jinks and little moments of "learning." But the film hasn't been cast, shot or edited in a way that allows much of that to make it from book to screen. Frankel, filming in South Florida, lost his Devil Wears Prada mojo and reverted to his Miami Rhapsody form. If you didn't see that 1995 comedy, it's because nobody did. Something about the sand, sun and dogs sucked the joy and wit right out of him.
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It doesn't help that Wilson, as Grogan, plays this thing at half-speed. This was his first film after his 2007 suicide attempt, and there's no spring to his step here, no snap to his few one-liners. Aniston is stuck playing the straight man. And they're both second banana to a yellow Labrador retriever who gets into fixes that Frankel can't seem to film funny.
Marley, named on the way home from his adoption by a reggae tune on the radio, bolts on his leash, howls at thunderstorms, chews on anything and everything and terrorizes dog sitters and dog trainer (Kathleen Turner in a single almost-amusing scene) alike.
Meanwhile, the Grogans rise through the newspaper profession and cope with building a family and a neighbor's misfortunes. and constantly look back on the life they once had before all this responsibility weighed them down.
The overriding problem with all this is that there's little levity to lighten that "Everyday life, only funnier" take on marriage and family. Marley's best stuff either didn't make it into the script or wound up on the cutting room floor. When Wilson, as Grogan, recounts some of the dog's misadventures to a vet near the end of the film, you might wonder, "Where's that movie?" Running out on the field during a Marlins game, pulling over tables in restaurants, using the bathroom in the surf? Not much to hang a film on.
The movie is better at creating a fantasy version of the life of a newspaperman (and woman, "Jenny" Grogan was a reporter, too) than at anything else. Alan Arkin is the clichéd gruff editor. Eric Dane plays Grogan's single, more ambitious reporter pal as blandly as a runway model.
The book has made grown men weep. But seeing the movie, you can't help but feel had. Grogan, a onetime columnist at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, got a best seller out of a dog who was a lot more interesting than this.