RATING |

You can be a movie lover and you can be a dog lover, but there are times during "Marley and Me" when it's hard to be both.

Movie lovers, for instance, may find themselves saddened long before this suburban Old Yeller reaches its destination on a Chester County farm, midlife home of "Marley" author and former Inky columnist John Grogan.

The scene that's maybe hardest to take occurs near the movie's outset, in South Florida, where Grogan (Owen Wilson) and wife Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) start their marriage and their family with an incorrigible dog named Marley.

They take him to a trainer, played by Kathleen Turner, now bearing signs of age and infirmity.

Marley knocks her to the ground, pins her and starts humping her leg - it's South Florida, it's something akin to a sex scene, but it sure ain't "Body Heat."

I wonder if Aniston looked on and thought: "Never get old."

Sigh.

PETA has signed off on this movie, but the Screen Actors Guild ought to have cruelty statutes of its own.

Early portions of the film also suffer from director David Frankel's apparent decision to make Wilson and Aniston a "typical" couple by making them bland - Wilson seems particularly off his game here, laid back without the loopy unpredictability that makes him a unique screen presence. And Aniston has been sexier.

This seems in keeping with one of the movie's themes - Grogan agonizes over having Marley fixed, and wonders if marriage amounts to the same thing.

Grogan becomes a columnist who specializes in soft features, and compares himself unfavorably to a single, globe-trotting colleague with a string of glamorous assignments and gorgeous girlfriends.

Has marriage neutered him? Maybe. In their own way, the early scenes of wharf-side burger joints, Pottery Barn coffee tables and Hootie and the Blowfish songs are more horrifying than the '50s suburban hell of Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road."

It's the real marital discord, though, that starts to give the movie personality and momentum.

The Grogans are having trouble starting a family, then stopping it - one, two, three kids put major strain on domestic tranquility, and Marley ups the ante by chewing funiture, waking the baby, eating the tile, etc.

The Grogans fight through it, survive and prosper. In a key scene, they get past a weak-moment decision to give the stress-inducing Marley up for adoption.

Giving up on Marley, of course, is like giving up on themselves. Marley is chaos. He's everything that's unpredictable, impossible, unmanageable and scary about family life.

Which is to say, almost everything that's worthwhile.

So, have those hankies ready when Marley starts to falter and the Grogans start to contemplate life without him.

Produced by Karen Rosenfelt, Gil Netter, directed by David Frankel, written by Scott Frank, Don Roos, music by Theodore Shapiro, distributed by 20th Century Fox.