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Marley & Me (2008)
I went to Marley & Me because Patricia wanted to go, and because we were visiting family and it seemed the kind of film the nephews (Ryan, 5, and Jordy, 7) could see as well, but I expected little. I hadn’t read the best-seller on which it was based. Hadn’t friends told me it was sappy? You could argue a yellow-lab puppy on a movie poster isn’t much different than a bikini-clad girl on a movie poster: our covetedness of what’s on the poster is in inverse proportion to the movie’s probable worth.
Yet Marley & Me, shockingly, contains something like the messiness of life. It’s a good life, admittedly, and a life that doesn’t exist much anymore. The main characters, John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), newlyweds, try to find a place in an industry, newspapers, that’s still thriving in the early 1990s. They’re beautiful and blonde, and live in a sunny state (Florida), but they’re not all sunny. Choices are made but doubts remain. Opportunities are given (a lifestyle column) but original plans die hard.
John wants to be a crack investigative journalist like his friend Sebastian, and he envies the man’s swinging bachelor lifestyle. But Jennifer wants kids. Sebastian, hearing John’s dilemma, suggests a dog, and the couple winds up with the title character, a yellow-lab puppy, the world’s worst dog. Cue misadventures. It’s fun stuff. Who doesn’t love an unmanageable dog that’s owned by someone else?
But the movie isn’t really about the dog. Or if it is, it’s about what the dog represents: messiness. Most films excise messiness; Marley & Me doesn’t because messiness is the point.
So John and Jennifer decide to have kids, but she has a miscarriage...on the way to having three kids. It would’ve been easy, as a screenwriter, to get rid of the miscarriage — it didn’t add greatly to the movie — but they kept it in.
So the neighborhood they live in is dicey — a neighbor is attacked and knifed by her car — and you think, “Ah, this is how Marley shows his worth. He gets the guy preying on the neighborhood.” No. John and Jennifer simply move. To a bigger house in a better neighborhood. Then to an even bigger house in another state. Life keeps happening.
Halfway through, there’s a montage, the “wrote a column about...” montage, that is one of the better examples of the device I’ve seen. Most modern montages borrow from Rocky as an easy way to show the title character improving, but Marley’s montage merely shows life happening and is thus infinitely relatable. Most of us don’t improve the way Rocky improves. (Sorry.) We just wind up in a place where we wonder: “How did I get a spouse and kids and this home and this job? How did I get fat and old? This wasn’t part of the plan.” Marley is like the movie version of that great John Lennon line: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
There’s a nice scene near the end between Sebastian, now a star with The New York Times, and John, a columnist for a Philadelphia newspaper, meeting by happenstance in downtown Philly. They exchange greetings, John shows a photo of the family, and there it is: Something like envy in Sebastian’s look and voice. Each envies the other’s life but each is happy enough with his own life. There’s a kind of melancholy in this. It’s not that we make good or bad choices, it’s that everyday, by the choices we make, we kill off other ways we might be. There’s great sadness in this.
Am I making too much out of what is, after all, only a dog movie? Maybe. But screenwriter Scott Frank is responsible for writing “Minority Report,” “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty.” Director David Frankel not only directed “The Devil Wears Prada” (another nice surprise) but is the son of Max Frankel, longtime executive editor of The New York Times, and so knows his way around a newsroom. I’m not saying the movie’s brilliant. I’m just saying that in the battle between sappy and true, more often than not, they opted for true.
We had our own messiness just going to the film. The 5-year-old threw a tantrum and stayed home and a lot of the film was over the head of the 7-year-old. Jordy has his own Marley — Seymour, the world’s most underfoot dog — and we worried how he would take the death of Marley. At the least, he seemed to take it better than Patricia, who cried for the last 10 minutes, but we’re not sure. We talked about it on the way to the car, and in the car, but I was beginning to feel the affects of an attack of bronchitis (more messiness) and wasn’t sharp enough or attentive enough to gauge Jordy’s reaction. Anyway, Jordy was off in his own world. He was already busy making other plans.
January 2, 2009
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard