First, a disclosure: I am a dog person. What's more, I am one of those people who believes you can draw a neat line in this world between those who are cat lovers (seriously?) and those who are more partial to dogs. So Marley & Me appealed to me from the very beginning. Not only is it a film about a golden Labrador, but it also has the faint aroma of romantic comedy, as it stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as the young married couple John and Jenny Grogan.
At the start of the film, the beloved dog is yet to arrive. But soon after their wedding, the pair move from Michigan to Florida and Jenny utters the words that cause her husband's eyes to bulge out of his head. "I killed another one," she says peering at a wilted plant in their kitchen. "How am I supposed to take care of a kid if I can't even keep a plant alive?" Cue efforts from John to think up a suitable distraction. It comes in the shape of a Labrador puppy they name Marley after a Bob Marley song comes on the car radio as John goes to pick the dog up.
Marley moonlights as a house wrecking force, tearing into large bags of kibble and nonchalantly strewing the contents across the house, chewing furniture, running across neighbours' gardens and swallowing Jenny's jewellery. Efforts to train him go awry, too, and he is thrown out of dog school after flooring the trainer (a cameo played by Kathleen Turner). "Maybe your hair reminded him of a poodle," suggests John, a deadpan line delivered with typical Wilson brilliance.
But never mind all that, because such mischief means John, a journalist at the Sun Sentinel, starts knocking out sardonic columns about Marley's latest escapades. (They became enormously popular and eventually lead to the release of John Grogan's real-life book Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog in 2005, on which the film is based.) Once John begins writing these columns, the film picks up speed and whittles through major life events like ninepins. After an initial miscarriage come three children, then bigger pay cheques, bigger houses and cars. The Grogans live the happy life of a typical middle-class American family, and Marley oversees it all, blithely chewing anything that gets in his way.
When the film was released last December, critics decried it as schmaltzy. But, really, one has to ask what they were expecting. The main character is a fluffy dog and his co-stars are Wilson and Aniston. If you're looking for hard core action, this is not the thing. If, on the other hand, you want a family film that will reduce you to a sobbing pool of tears by the end, look no further (it's like a 21st century version of Old Yeller).
Marley & Me offers more than dog-focused gags and trauma. Plenty of material about the trials of marriage and ambition give it slightly more punch than your average animal-based plotline. Aniston deserves special applause. She proves that while she might never be able to tackle Oscar-worthy dramatic roles, she has more than moved on from sitcom acting. There is a particularly brilliant moment when, as a cooped-up mother, she shrieks at her husband and demands that he get rid of the dog. (He doesn't, of course; that would make a rubbish ending to the film).
Perhaps it's also worth noting how well Aniston ages during the film. It covers 13 years of Grogan family life, but while Marley goes from puppy to stiff-limbed elder, Aniston retains her swishy hair and sun-kissed, shiny skin throughout. Maybe that's what a daily dog walk does for you. Just give it some thought, cat people. That's all I'm saying.