Movies are generally lauded for having “universal” qualities, but there’s such a thing as too universal, when the events on screen are so ordinary and relatable that they aren’t removed enough from the grinding banality that fills most people’s lives. And that’s the central problem with Marley & Me, a dog movie pitched somewhere between Beethoven and Old Yeller—part rambunctious, part sentimental, and therefore not far removed from the experience the majority of dog-owners have with their beloved, unruly pets. The only difference is that columnist John Grogan published a memoir about his dog and now that memoir has become a movie that chronicles his perfectly average life with his perfectly average dog in a perfectly average way. Though it requires three or four hankies to mop up the mess this sentimental tale leaves behind, the tears feel largely unearned.
Performing through gritted teeth—or maybe that’s just projecting—Owen Wilson plays Grogan with forced humor and a touch of melancholy that runs deeper than what’s on the page. Shortly after getting married, Grogan and his wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), also a journalist, move to South Florida and score jobs at separate dailies. Grogan struggles at first to get some traction in hard news, but when his editor (Alan Arkin) taps him to write a column, his light-hearted personal stories quickly earn him an ardent following. His favorite subject is his dog Marley, a Labrador retriever that he picked out as a surprise for his wife, mainly as a passive-aggressive way to put off having children for another year. But they do get around to having kids, three of them, and the constantly misbehaving Marley ups the domestic chaos.
Marley tears up the furniture. He jumps on visitors. He’s undisciplined on the leash. He would no doubt terrorize Charles Grodin to the tune of “Bad To The Bone” if given half the chance. In other words, he’s a dog. Perhaps Grogan’s descriptions of Marley’s antics are funnier and more vivid on the page, but what makes it onto the screen isn’t much more outrageous than the typical untrained pup, and Grogan’s family life isn’t any spicier. Again and again, the movie reminds us that Grogan is a brilliant writer—Arkin calls him “a national treasure” and his wife and eldest son sift adoringly through his clip book on separate occasions—but Marley & Me could not be more ordinary.