Monday, March 30, 2009

Marley & Lucy

Ever the contrarian, I spent most of the recent holiday movie season uninvolved. I could care less about Kate Winslet's naked pursuit of her very own Oscar (Surprise! She won!) or Sean Penn's shrewdly narcissistic performance in a movie that is little more than a high-rent TV biopic.

Much more appealing to me were two titles with pedigrees of a different sort. David Frankel's "Marley and Me" and Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" come from different ends of the cinema spectrum and would seem to be strikingly dissimilar. Ah, but look closer. Yes, both are about dogs - about Labrador retrievers in particular - but, more to the point, both deal with the wordless affection and trust that animals can (and do) bring to relationships, qualities of which humans are only vaguely aware.

And usually when it's too late.

"Marley and Me," of course, is a family-friendly mainstream film adapted from the John Grogan best-seller. It's a movie that was ready-made for the cineplex at your local mall and, as such, was immeditately - and hastily - dismissed by the critics. Too bad. There's more than what meets the eye here. Frankel, ably abetted by his game stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, apparently was not interested in doodling some mindless romp here, but was driven by something more serious, commenting in subtle ways on the profound relationship that a person can have with an animal in general and with a companion pet in particular. (That's Wilson and Aniston, above, with canine co-star Clyde in a scene from the film.)

It's a family film but a superior one, alternately endearing and disturbing as it shows scenes of family life, wherein a pet - first a little puppy, then a hulking giant - is always there, usually on the periphery of the action but, somehow, crucial to the action. His presence, casually taken for granted, is felt only when he is gone. Suddenly, life has ... changed. Sad.

"Marley and Me" earns its tears, largely because Frankel has given his film a generous exposition that's alive with many acute observations and details. And in Wilson and Aniston, he has two vanity-free pros who have chemistry to spare and play out their individual and shared foibles in a natural (and good-natured) style that would have been appreciated by Hollywood and critics of an earlier era. No pretensions here.

Much smaller and spare, Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" is essentially a one-character piece about a young homeless woman named Wendy - Michelle Williams in a performance of aching stillness - headed from Indiana to Alaska in her Honda Accord with her dog Lucy in tow.

She's looking for work - and a new life.

The car breaks down in Oregon and Lucy is left stranded when Wendy is arrested for shoplifting.

All this happens early on and, again, Reichardt presents the loss of a dog as something of a quiet, unexpected tragedy. Wrenchingly, Wendy spends the rest of the film trying to find Lucy. (Incidentally, Lucy, above with Williams, is director Reichardt's dog.)

"Wendy and Lucy" is the kind of movie instinctively disliked my most moviegoers because "nothing happens in it." True. But you could say the same thing about Hitchcock's "Vertigo," in which Jimmy Stewart trails Kim Novak up and down the streets of San Francisco ad infinitum. These are movies that one reads - i.e., studies. You don't simply watch them.

No, you observe them - and learn.

The film is an acting exercise for Williams, whose performance inexplicably went under the radar during the recent awards season. Her work here is noteworthy for its simplicity, beauty and innocence.

She is a pleasure to watch.

Both "Marley and Me" and "Wendy and Lucy" are new on DVD. I can't wait to see each one again. And again. I wish I could say the same about "Milk," "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Wrestler."

But I can't.


Sylko said...

This is one of the reasons I always liked reading your movie reviews. You are able to look at a mainstream movie and see why people might want to see it. I haven't seen Marley and Me (I have three small children. The only movie I've seen in the theaters since 2001 is Wall-E--I am very picky about what movies I let them watch), but I appreciate that you can recommend the movie that a more pretentious critic might dismiss.

Jeffrey K. said...

Wonderful analyses. Makes me want to see two films that I managed to miss.

wwolfe said...

Based on the poster, I expected "Marley and Me" to an exercise in cute. But enough critics whose opinions I respect have said good things about it that I now want to see it when it arrives on HBO or Showtime. (I also take a small pleasure in the fact that Jennifer Anniston had a much better year, both commercially and artistically, with "He's Just Not That Into You and M&M than The Golden Couple did, notwithstanding their twin Oscar nominations.

I very much want to see "Wendy and Lucy," and regret having missed it in the theater. Back when "Dawson's Creek" was a new hot property on the WB, I never would have imagined that Michelle Williams would go on to do such good work in so many interesting movies: Dick, My Life Without Me, Brokeback Mountain, The Station Agent, for starters. And she's only 29. Here's to many more years of much-appreciated, if slightly under the radar work.

joe baltake said...

Williams has blossomed into a terrific actress, one who seems to have willfully shunned the mainstream, for better or worse. Has she ever made a mainstream movie (other than "A Thousand Acres")?

As for "Marley and Me," it continues to go up in my mind. I think you'll be surprised by how balanced a film it is. I liked that it doesn't cater to kids or families.

Gwen said...

wwolfe is right. Brad and Jolie might have made more "important" movies in 2009, but they both failed. No business and so-so-reviews. Somehow, the Academy was infatuated with them. Jennifer Aniston, on the other than, gave two very naturalistic performances (the kind that don't break hearts and win Oscars) that I personally found much more appealing.

jbryant said...

Gwen: While Benjamin Button's domestic gross of $127 million is undoubtedly a disappointment relative to the film's budget, I don't think it can be characterized as "no business."

I'm also of the minority opinion that "Changeling" was one of the best films of last year. I haven't seen the Aniston films yet, so obviously I have nothing to say about them. I'm definitely interested though. She was great in The Good Girl, and I think The Break-Up is underrated.

joe baltake said...


I agree with you about "The Changling," but then, I'm a sucker these days for anything that Eastwood does. Re Pitt and Jolie, I can take or leave either one of them. She, once promising, has become one-note. All of her most recent performances seem exactly the same. And Pitt is an actor of modest means, at best. He and Cruise are terribly overrated and I never quite understood their popularity with the public or why Hollywood seems to have "taken care" of both.

As for Aniston, frankly, I can't think of one film, no matter how minor, in which she was ever bad. She's always good and, in a lot of cases, better than good - "The Good Girl," as you point out, and "The Object of Affection." I think she's wonderful in both "Marley" and "He's Just Not That Into You."

End of diatribe.