John (Owen Wilson) is a reporter. So he tells himself, again and again. He likes to pursue a lead, ferret out facts and get good quotes, then write it up with a hard-nosed flourish. He means to have a career like his best friend Sebastian (Eric Dane), whose work takes him around the world, into war zones and political tinderboxes. The hours are long and the work is tough, but it’s so rewarding—all that celebrity and access, tangling with important people and making a difference. John just knows this is the life for him.
Until it isn’t. Just a couple of minutes into Marley & Me, John discovers another calling, though he doesn’t quite identify it until much, much later. He sets aside his journalistic ambitions in order to marry the girl of his dreams, the delightful and beguiling Jenny (Jennifer Aniston). A reporter herself, and a good one, apparently, she understands John’s professional desires. That doesn’t stop her from suggesting—on their snowy wedding night—that they move someplace warm, rather than stay in Michigan where he may or may not have a reporting job lined up. The point in John’s voiceover is that he is so enchanted by Jenny that he’s willing to do whatever she asks. “How’d I get that lucky?” he rhapsodizes, as she lays out what they laughingly call her “plan.”
This begins with the marriage and leads next to West Palm Beach, where they settle into a house and her plan takes on a more specific shape. While the film makes cursory references to the world beyond John-and-Jenny (a report on new designs for Florida ballots and a shot of Saddam Hussein appear on a background TV), the focus is for the most part very, very tight on their increasingly domestic sphere. Though John keeps track of Sebastian’s travels—he’s writing for the New York Times, headed to Colombia to interview some guy named Pablo Escobar—he begins to lose sight of his own ambitions, instead covering local stories and trading japes in with his editor Arnie (Alan Arkin). When Jenny begins to make noises about a baby, John cringes, almost visibly, then takes Sebastian’s advice: a dog will distract her, and so keep him just footloose-and-fancy-free enough for the big story when it comes his way.
Jenny’s selection out of a pile of puppies is Marley, a yellow lab who will complicate and essentially consume their lives for the film’s duration. Lots of puppy hijinks here: shoe-chewing, garbage-spreading, wall-chewing, and sofa-shredding. He runs through screen doors, drags his humans by his leash, and terrorizes the trainer, Ms. Kornblut (Kathleen Turner), who ends up flat on her back, sputtering that they must take this horrible creature away and never come back.
All this is sweet and screwbally and not a terrible way to structure a romance. Jenny and John have created a monster—though they tend to blame Marley, whom he repeatedly calls “the worst dog in the world”—a sign of the dysfunction between them, their inability to focus or agree on goals. For the most part, John is one of those Ricky Ricardo kind of sitcom husbands, amiable and laid back, happy to support the family if that’s what it takes to keep his beautiful wife content. When she pushes for the baby a few more times, he agrees, imagining that his newly increased salary will allow them to make the change.
That salary, not coincidentally, is the result of discovering his calling: John is not a reporter after all, but a columnist. Funny and wry, he writes about his domestic adventures, primarily about the dog, meaning that what you’re watching is derived from the book that was published of the columns his real-life inspiration wrote about the dog. John resists this new self-identity. He does actually like the idea of being a reporter, envies Sebastian’s manly mien and even his womanizing. By comparison, John is feeling limited, like he’s got another horizon out there, if only he could see it still. But as one baby and then another arrives, John stifles his selfish yearnings and concentrates on the column—that is, on the dog stories.
Granting this source, the dog’s service as metaphor in the movie is both obvious and uninspired. But as Marley incarnates the relationship’s erratic energies and reliable devotion, he must also bear its sentimental load, which comes hard and heavy in the film’s last 25 minutes or so. Be warned: while the movie is being advertised as fun-filled, rambunctious fare for a Christmas day family outing, appealing to “anyone who’s ever loved a dog,” it is a rough ending for young viewers, who may need some consolation and context afterwards.
While this mawkish turn is not in itself unlikely in a dog story, it does indicate Marley & Me‘s mushiness and dishonesty when it comes to John’s trajectory toward seeming adulthood. For him, because it’s the path he chooses, being a reporter and being a dad are not compatible. For him, Sebastian can only be a bad example, hitting on svelte young women he spots on the sidewalk. And for him, Jenny, whom he means at first to distract with Marley, is eventually connected with the dog in graceless and superficial ways. Perhaps it’s the part of the plan she didn’t anticipate.