Thursday, April 2, 2009

Marley & Me: What is it?

When I went to Blockbuster yesterday afternoon, I had no intentions to write a post about Marley & Me. But this movie is such a curious oddity, in ways one might not expect from a film touted as "The Perfect Family Comedy!" (Mark Allen, CBS, DVD cover).

First of all, the movie is about writing and narrative form. Here are Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson in one scene, proofreading a piece of writing together:

I can (almost) imagine screening this moment in a classroom in order to model collaboration. Aniston and Wilson play married newspaper columnists. The film, intermittently narrated by Wilson in plucky voice-overs, follows their careers and the escapades of their dog Marley, who Wilson's character writes about in his columns. But as the movie unfolded, I was constantly uncertain whether I was watching a story about Wilson's character the writer, or whether I was watching what Wilson's character was watching in order to write stories. In other words, the film is so layered with embedded subplots and hovering meta-narratives that it begins to take shape as an intricate chiasmus. The movie jerks back and forth between narrative points-of-view, but it turns out that all these layers exist on the same plane, even as they appear to loop around continually, adding texture and turns. The movie, frankly, stretches and twists the brain by employing quite sophisticated plotting mechanisms. Toward the end, it turns out that we're back at the beginning; the movie has mostly been an elaborate analepsis, or flashback of sorts.

The movie also participates, albeit awkwardly, in the genre of the epic: Wilson and Aniston's characters are on a familiar journey toward that mythic place called The American Dream, yellow lab and Honda Odyssey minivan included. However, this is an epic landscape without gods or fate. In fact, Marley & Me forwards a radically secular sense of contemporary culture. Mentions of God and Christian theology are brief, sardonic, and during a vacation in Ireland (thus also exoticized). Near the end of the film, a young child speaks of Heaven, making this idea seem infantile. On the other hand, the film makes its audience intensely aware of the passing of time, and the passing of life—i.e., mortality. Marley & Me is about impermanence, enjoying things while they last, and writing about it all. And then making a movie about all these things. If this sounds like a tall order for an allegedly simple feel-good movie, it is. Furthermore, the movie is definitively not a comedy. It is a tragedy. But perhaps what makes the movie 'postmodern'—to use a potentially vapid term—is precisely its ability to conflate, confuse, and compact an incredible amount of narrative material in 115 minutes of something called entertainment.