Rather like how Jennifer Aniston
'comedy' The Break-Up
wasn't actually a comedy at all, the former Friend is heading up another fake-out - sold as a warm and bright shaggy rom-com, Marley & Me is actually a thoroughly depressing drama following man, woman and hound as they grow old together. Cat people likely won't give two small shits; dog people, however, will weep like grieving widows throwing themselves on the coffin.
Based on the book of the same name - more a collection of newspaper columns, actually - Marley & Me follows writer John Grogan (Wilson) as he starts a family with wife Jennifer (Aniston) and their faithful labrador. They live. They love. They learn. They share scenes reminiscent of Andrex adverts. Then, after a short while, dark clouds begin to gather and any sunshine is quickly wrung from the concept in a cynical attempt to make you feel. It doesn't gently pull on the heart-strings so much as yank on them like some insane biological tug-of-war.
It's a rather obvious spoiler but a spoiler all the same, so look away now if you don't want to spoil the movie's ending - feel free to leave the cinema after an hour and skip all the way home, ruffling the heads of nearby dogs as you go. But in this movie, the dog dies. The happy-go-lucky, slobbering, joyful dog - symbolic of everything that is right with the world - fucking dies. And it's not a quick death either, under the wheel of a bus or at the hands of an evil geneticist. It's a slow, natural death, one that feels like it lasts half the film. Worse, it works - only a man of stone could remain emotionless witnessing this cute doggie (actually 22 different doggies) barking its last. You'll sob but feel cheated out of every tear.
It's a hoary old cliché to remark that Animal X out-acted its human counterparts, but here it's a genuine concern - you'll often forget Wilson and Aniston are even present. Listen carefully, and you'll hear the movie slowly creeping up to the moment of Marley's death - everything beforehand is just filler. When the dog dies, so does the movie: it literally ends about a minute later. But what of John and Jen? Who cares: THEY JUST BURIED THEIR FUCKING DOG, MAN. You'll spend two hours sitting in on the charmed lives of two bland puppets, but when all is said and done, they play second fiddle to a bunch of puppies.
The story is best served when Aniston is cut out of the picture, focusing on Wilson and his mutt (there's almost as much chemistry here as there is between him and Ben Stiller) - when it's one man and his dog, Marley & Me is actually an effective, if cornball, buddy movie. Alas, with Aniston's nagging wife added to the equation, the formula is botched: you can't romanticise an animal to this extent and still expect us to care about the people. It doesn't help that the passage of time is hardly felt - despite a plot that spans over ten years, no characters visibly age (other than Marley, natch). Even Alan Arkin's sarcastic boss gains no new liver spots.
Marley & Me is a film with much to recommend - to the right audience. Unfortunately, that audience is comprised of people who love dogs, hate humans and enjoy putting themselves through the wringer in the name of entertainment: hardly sounds like a fun night out at the movies, does it? Save some time; stay at home and think of your dead pets instead.