Making a movie out of one person's memoirs is hard enough. You've got to capture the person's writing voice, which usually is what makes the book worth reading to begin with, and you have to condense the manifold events of a life into a two-hour running time with some semblance of narrative drive. But when that memoir is something as slim as Marley and Me, John Grogan's account of 12 years or so spent in the company of a rambunctious lab, the challenges are pretty much impossible to overcome.
For despite the cinematic gloss given by Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel, the alluring star power of Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in the lead roles, and the many trailer-ready moments of puppy humor, Marley & Me is a movie in which nothing really happens. Grogan's memoir was based on columns he wrote about family life for The Florida Sun-Sentinel, which recounted the mundane events of life skewed by their ownership of a loony yellow lab, Marley. But while snuggling up to one family's life story in a weekly column, or even in a short book, might feel satisfying, as a movie it becomes a drag. Dog lovers will enjoy watching the two dozen pups who played Marley, but even they may find themselves bored by the entirely mundane Grogan family.
The story starts when John (Wilson) and Jenny (Aniston) relocate to South Florida from Michigan and decide to adopt a dog rather than having kids right away, given their busy jobs at daily newspapers. But instead of a peaceful pet they end up with Marley, a dog who will eat anything, cries nonstop during thunderstorms, and grows into a giant lab who yanks the both of them along on the leash. John's friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) uses Marley as a chick magnet, while John and Jen suffer through failed obedience lessons, endless shredded sofas, and a long series of public misadventures that begin with the dog hightailing away from his owners.
After a while Marley becomes background decoration as John and Jen struggle to conceive a baby, successfully have a baby or three, move to Boca Raton, debate their career goals, squabble a bit, move to Pennsylvania, squabble a bit more. And while it's refreshing to see a bit of reality sneak into the story, especially when Jen gets frustrated after leaving her job to raise the kids, there's a reason movies don't usually detail the lives of regular people. Even the little bit of plot that comes from John's constant uncertainty about his career doesn't get properly fleshed out, and instead we get scene after scene of happy family, frustrated family, swimming family, football-playing family, with Marley always romping around in the background.
There's something comforting about this kind of moviegoing experience, spending a little while with a photogenic, utterly boring family. And the movie works pretty well in its individual moments, especially the more emotional ones that feature the dog at the focus. Grogan clearly understands, as do screenwriters Scott Frank and Don Roos, the amazing power a dog has to absorb and reflect human emotions. When Marley sits with Jen as she cries after a miscarriage, or ruminates next to John as they sit on the beach, the movie taps into the universal feelings of love a dog can evoke, and manages to reach beyond its mundane story to have something to say.
Which is to say, Marley & Me will find plenty of fans, particularly those looking to evoke their own fond dog memories and spend some hours being moderately entertained. Marley & Me is about as good a movie as it ever could have hoped to be, being adapted from book that probably had no business being a movie to begin with. Its small moments of insight don't make up for the overall lack of drama or narrative, but they will evoke all the proper emotions out of an audience with tissues at the ready. The movie hasn't done much to improve on the book, except for maybe adding some photogenic actors; but for a Christmas Day outing full of family values and humor, that might be enough.