- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Flip through the pages of the best-selling “Marley & Me,” about an out-of-control dog and his exasperated owners, and you’ll fear the kind of movie it would spawn.

Haven’t we already had six “Beethoven” films - including the latest straight-to-video installment?

The book always was about more than just canine high jinks, and the film version works best when it takes the focus away from Marley the wrecking ball and examines a marriage in all its imperfections.

“Marley” stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as Florida newlyweds John and Jenny Grogan. They’re not sure if they’re ready to start a family, so they decide to adopt a puppy first.

Not just any puppy, as it turns out. Marley (named after Bob Marley, mon) is every dog parent’s worst nightmare. Uncontrolled. Unreasonable. Brimming with energy.

The pup also delivers unconditional love, though, so no matter how many times he chomps up drywall or chases dog sitters from their home, John and Jenny can’t stop loving him.

Marley also provides John, a frustrated columnist for the local paper, an endless supply of comic fodder.

That changes when Jenny gets pregnant. Suddenly, Marley’s behavior impacts more than just them, and cracks begin to appear in their once idealized marriage. It doesn’t help John’s state of mind when he watches his best pal, Sebastian (Eric Dane), lead the kind of jet-setting journalistic life John once dreamed about as a single man.

What “Marley & Me” understands better than most films of its kind is what dogs truly mean to their owners. They’re not just cute playthings or tricksters on command. They accompany life’s milestones, loyally standing by as we endure the passage of time.

Mr. Wilson delivers the least idiosyncratic performance of his still young career. He uses all the tools he usually brings to quirky fare like “Drillbit Taylor” and “Wedding Crashers” - that disheveled profile, those velvety line readings - to make John’s growth real and relatable.

Miss Aniston has little to do in the film’s first half, but she’s nearly as impressive as Jenny begins to understand the complications of juggling work and children.

The film ladles on the melodrama in its final moments, daring any dog lover not to break down as age starts catching up to the rapscallion dog. And while Alan Arkin is incapable of giving a poor performance, his role as John’s editor could have stood some beefing up.

“Marley & Me” will draw dog lovers into theaters this Christmas season, and it does deliver the requisite gags involving Marley’s “personality” outbursts. It’s far more rewarding as a portrait of a struggling marriage than a collection of “stupid pet tricks.”

★★★

TITLE: “Marley & Me”

RATING: PG (Mild adult language and some comic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by David Frankel. Written by Scott Frank and Don Roos based on the book “Marley & Me” by John Grogan.

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

WEB SITE: www.marleyandmemovie.com

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