A scant few minutes into Marmaduke there’s a fart joke. Right after this fart joke Marmaduke turns to the camera and confesses, “I know it’s juvenile, but it’s all I’ve got.” It’s extremely tempting to leave this review at that, knock off early and pound some tequila slammers, but I’m a respected professional, damn it. A respected professional who… has to write about Marmaduke. Sigh… So instead I’ll just combine my review of Marmaduke with tequila slammers and see what happens next.
Anyway, not terribly long ago a film version of the “popular” comic strip Marmaduke was released in theaters. I put “popular” in quotation marks because nobody actually seems to like the strip, if indeed they ever did. It’s an old standard, accepted by the public as something that comes with the paper that no one actually reads, like those little advertisements that fall out when you open it and get thrown away, unread and unloved. So someone in a position of power in Hollywood thought, “Unread and unloved? That sounds like the perfect movie!” I’m guessing the relative success of the live-action Garfield movie was a factor, but the Garfield comic strip actually made somebody laugh once. Marmaduke on the other hand has an entire website dedicated to analyzing what its creators arbitrarily consider “jokes.”
The concept behind Marmaduke isn’t a terribly complicated one. Frankly, Garfield reads like Chaucer in comparison. A normal family has a very large dog. Seriously, this is one very large dog. Too large for convenience really, but they’ve had him long enough that feel morally compelled to treat him like a member of the family. But man, seriously? That’s one large dog. Not quite Clifford, but close enough for government work. So turning Marmaduke into a movie should have been easy. Just remake Beethoven and call it a day.
But you see, that’s the problem with adapting something like Marmaduke: The story’s been done more often, and better, in the medium it’s being adapted to. In other words, Marmaduke is exactly like The Punisher. In the world of Marvel Comics, The Punisher was an anomaly. He solved his problems with guns and killed his antagonists rather than refusing to stoop to their level. In a world of Spider-Men and Captains America that character was relatively unique, but in movies that character is a dime a dozen: Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Cobra, Commando… What has The Punisher got that they ain’t got? Not a god damned thing. And the same holds true for Marmaduke, which found itself competing with other shaggy dog movies like, say, The Shaggy Dog, The Ugly Dachsund, and even a few decent films that didn’t star Fred MacMurray*, like Old Yeller and Marley & Me.
Hell, Marley & Me even had the same star: Owen Wilson, who probably needed to pay off his mortgage once and for all. Or maybe he was doing director Tom Dey a favor. Dey also directed Shanghai Noon, one of Wilson’s better mainstream efforts (and still Jackie Chan’s best American film to date), so it wasn’t necessarily inevitable that Marmaduke was going to suck. Just highly probable. Luckily for me, I didn’t bet against it. Like Furry Vengeance before it, Marmaduke has had the distinction of being considered “The Worst Film Of 2010.” I’m not going to try too hard to dispute that, but damn it… I’d still rather watch Marmaduke than Clash of the Titans.
You might have noticed that I haven’t said much about the actual movie they made of Marmaduke. I’d recommend reading a lot into that. I knew I was in trouble right away when the prologue of the film featured a talking dog reminiscing about high school. “And what, exactly, does this dog know about high school” you ask? Not a damned thing. He learns about high school over the course of the following movie, which takes the generic talking animal genre and marries it to the generic high school genre, with generic results. One imagines that the contradictory prologue was tacked on in post-production to either pad the film or clarify Marmaduke’s central conceit: that being a dog is just like being in high school, apparently. The fact that none of the actual cast of the film shows up for this little introduction seems to support the hypothesis.
Anyway, Marmaduke (Owen Wilson, for those keeping score) is living with his family in Kansas when he learns that they’re moving to “The O.C.” To clarify, the only reason his family lived in Kansas in the first place is to ease us into a Wizard of Oz reference. You know the one, and I’m not going to insult you by repeating it here. There’s a bit in which Marmaduke and his ethnic sidekick Carlos (George Lopez) study up for their trip by watching “The O.C.” on television. These are the jokes, folks. It might have been vaguely amusing if “The O.C.” were still on the air and even vaguely culturally relevant. With a little luck the inevitable sequel will feature Marmaduke moving to New Orleans, forcing him to watch Treme.
Marmaduke’s owners Phil (Lee Pace of “Pushing Daisies”) and his incredibly, like seriously ridiculously hot wife Debbie (Judy Greer, call me), and their two kids Bland and Blander (who were portrayed by child actors of some sort) all end up in California, where Phil works at a dog food company run by William H. Macy, who I choose to believe is playing himself. For whatever reason, Macy’s company doesn’t have an office. I’m not even entirely confident that they have a factory. Instead, Macy spends every work day at a dog park where Phil repeatedly brings Marmaduke. (There’s a good opportunity for humor being completely ignored here: There could have been copy machines in the middle of a field, or office supplies tucked away in trees.) All the dogs in the dog park fall into a very familiar caste system, with the pedigrees at the top and everyone else, for all intents and purposes, at the bottom. At this high school for dogsMarmaduke will learn valuable lessons about being himself, social equality and of course that you should always settle for the tomboy in any love triangle.
Have you ever noticed that in high school movies, the attractive popular girl is always somehow unworthy of the male hero? This may have begun as an attempt to bring elitist cliques down a peg, but the ubiquitous nature of the trope has turned into an even greater insult. Attractive and/or popular women are, if movies are to be believed, mean, stupid and shallow people. What an empowering message. Meanwhile, tomboys are perfect, particularly if at the end of the film they’re wearing a dress. That means they’re willing to compromise, I suppose. But it’s difficult to make a dog look sexy in a dress, so instead Marmaduke’s love interest Mazie (Emma Stone) wears a pink bow instead of her usual bandana. Naturally, everyone is suddenly sexually attracted to her. As often happens with these kinds of movie makeovers, you’ll probably think she was more sexually attractive beforehand. I mean, fluffy! You’ll think she was more fluffy!**
Look, Marmaduke is a film with low ambitions. Some people just like watching dogs wear sunglasses, play Dance Dance Revolution (or at least a cheap knockoff, since Konami apparently didn’t want to be associated with this tripe), and of course surf, which from the looks of things is a practice bordering on animal cruelty. Which reminds me: “No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” Physically, perhaps. I guess reputations don’t count. Or dignity. Marmaduke is an undignified film if ever there was one, shamelessly entertaining in brief spurts with only the thinnest veneer of plot or characterization tying everything together. In short, Marmaduke is just like pornography but without all the entertainment value. Nobody ruined their career with this dog of a film (ha!), but the odds of it going on anybody’s Lifetime Achievement reel are pretty slim.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go throw up.***
*For the purposes of this review, Dean Jones counts as Fred MacMurray. That would be the tequila slammers kicking in.
**Tequila Slammers. Sorry.
***Not tequila slammers, just Marmaduke. Good night, everybody!