If you believe the ads and promotional campaign, you’ll think Marley & Me is a movie about a cute and incorrigible golden lab puppy.

It is, but it is also so much more. It’s the story of a beautiful and loving marriage, told through the span of a dog’s life. Although the dog adds joy and laughter, as dogs do, the heart of the movie is a lifelong love affair between a man, John Grogan (Owen Wilson), and his wife, Jen (Jennifer Aniston) as they repeatedly choose to face life’s disappointments and excitements together. The film is based on the best-selling book of the same name, and modeled after the adventures of the real-life Grogan family.

“The reason I wanted to be in this movie,” said Aniston at a press event for the movie, “is it wasn’t the girl trying to get the guy or the guy trying to get the girl, and the chase, and then you end the movie when they ride off into the sunset. This is sort of the sequel to that. You get to see the ins and outs of a relationship and see over 15 years and have it be funny because life is funny and dramatic.”

The Choice of Family

The film, opening Christmas Day, begins when Jen and John set off for their first real jobs as newlyweds. They are both reporters, working at newspapers in Florida. John, completely besotted with his wife, but worried that she wants a baby and not ready to take that step himself, gets her a puppy. The puppy, as it turns out, is a loving but untrainable force of nature. Marley. John’s friend and colleague Sebastian (Grey’s Anatomy’s Eric Dane) takes increasingly dangerous assignments and always growing glory, and spends his free time romancing beautiful ladies. He serves as a contrast to John’s domestic choices.

Marley’s antics form the backdrop for the next fifteen years of the Grogans’ lives. Marley chews up the sofa and fails obedience school. Marley runs with John along the beach as he comes to terms with desiring to become a father. Marley eats the special necklace John buys Jen, but also comforts Jen as she weeps over a miscarriage. Marley sends a dog-sitter into a nervous breakdown and violates the rules of the off-leash beach. As the Grogans have children, the dog cares for each of the three new additions. When Jen struggles with the stress of raising small children and choosing to give up her career to care for them, Marley’s bad behavior becomes a stress point in the marriage.

“That was one of the things we all embraced:  the opportunity to make a movie that was the portrait of a happy marriage, and yes, there are ups and downs and difficult times but mostly it’s about appreciating the choices you made and appreciating the choice of family,” said Director David Frankel.

Distracting as it is to have Owen Wilson cast as a serious journalist—his surfer dude persona comes through at points—the natural and affectionate back-and-forth between Wilson and Aniston makes up for those moments. They laugh, talk, bicker, and even fight, like a real married couple. There are sweet moments when John, arriving home from work, watches Jen through the window before entering the house. The film also shows true moments such as when Jen, exhausted and overwhelmed with two babies in the house, unleashes her frustration on an equally frustrated husband, a high pitched baby’s crying adding to the tension.

The Cycle of Life

There are a lot of true moments in the movie, which should make parents consider whether it’s appropriate for their children. Although it’s beautiful and strongly affirming of marriage and family, the Grogans go through real pain. Jen loses her first pregnancy to miscarriage, a loss that devastates her. She struggles with her choice to leave the job she loves to stay home with her children. The Grogans fight and have sex (married and mostly implied). Finally, when Marley’s time runs out, the film does not flinch from showing the grief of the family.

“There can be something beautiful about being together as a family in the whole cycle of life,” said Wilson.

Frankel added, “The fact that Marley dies is a reminder of how fleeting the time is with the ones we love and that’s ultimately why the movie is a celebration of life as sad as it is.”

He went on to say, “It’s a movie about and for people of all ages. I welcome their questions. I think that’s the joy of family is discussing the aspects of life.” However, parents know their children best and should consider whether their child is ready to absorb so much of life’s questions and hardships. If so, this movie is an excellent discussion starter.

A crucial scene in the movie shows John, in the height of young baby household tension, discussing with the eternal playboy Sebastian, a recent fight with his wife. The bachelor immediately assumes that the Grogans, having had a fight, will separate. In another film, seeking to find drama in the situation might have played up a separation and dramatic reunion. But in Marley & Me, John does not countenance the suggestion. “Why do you have to go there?” he asks Sebastian. They had a fight. Nothing more. When he returns home, both Jen and John reaffirm their love for one another and their determination to make it through. Together. 

Ultimately, John realizes his choice of family is much more fulfilling for him than his friend Sebastian’s freewheeling and lonely life.

Aniston feels the appeal of the movie is in its very lack of melodrama, and in its connection to ordinary people’s lives. “Here is a movie where people are actually going, ‘That’s me,’” she said, “’I walked through that.’ Even if you don’t have a dog.”

Eric Dane, who is married in real life, agrees. “I think there’s a universal yearning for unconditional love,” he said, “And I think that’s what the book is about and hopefully the movie is a little bit about.”


Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Opening nationwide on Christmas Day,
Marley & Me is rated PG (for thematic material, some suggestive content and language) and stars Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Alan Arkin and Eric Dane.  

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