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.