(by Dustin Putman
Dog and cat lovers, beware: "Marmaduke" is the first family film in recent memory with the power to make you hate domesticated pets. Based on the long-running comic strip by Brad Anderson and Phil Leeming, the title character—a Great Dane who, along with all his fellow animals, takes on certain human characteristics—is an obnoxious, selfish, carelessly destructive tornado of terror who talks to the point of headache-inducement and brings nothing at all positive to the lives of his owner family, the Winslows. Marmaduke farts on them, he pushes them into pools, he barrels into them and causes physical harm, he destroys the house, he steals food, and all along he is never there to give them an ounce of love, support, or respect. He's too self-involved, crass and defiant for that. So much for "man's best friend." Article continues below
When father Phil (Lee Pace) gets a cushy new job at pet food company Bark Organics, he and the rest of the family—housewife Debbie (Judy Greer), teenage daughter Barbara (Caroline Sunshine), precocious son Brian (Finley Jacobsen), toddler Sarah (Mandy and Milana Haines), dog Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson), and cat Carlos (voiced by George Lopez)—pack up their quiet Kansas life and move to Orange County, California. Here, the Winslows have a beautiful home with a pool in the back and an ocean view, to boot. The kids, however, are none too pleased with the new location, and the demands of Phil's boss Don Twombly (William H. Macy) force him to work long hours. As for Marmaduke, he is in heaven, befriending a nice group of fellow dogs at the local Bark Park until a more popular crowd, including the loose Jezebel (voiced by Stacy Ferguson), sway him in their direction. Naturally, the bitch with more earnest eyes for Marmaduke, Mazie (voiced by Emma Stone), feels slighted and gets her feelings hurt. Will Marmaduke come around to acknowledge who his true friends are? Will he continue to create havoc for the Winslows? Is this movie really as aimless and desperate as it sounds?
"Marmaduke" holds a grim behind-the-scenes pedigree, with director Tom Dey (2006's "Failure to Launch") leading the way and screenwriters Tim Rasmussen & Vince Di Meglio (2007's "License to Wed") getting paid to write unbearable jokes involving a person accidentally drinking canine urine and poor William H. Macy (2009's "Shorts"), slumming it as Don Twombly, getting knocked off his feet on multiple occasions by a stampeding Marmaduke. There is even a reference to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" as if that song weren't a flash-in-the-pan relic from ten years ago. The level of lameness that this picture sinks to is only overshadowed by how depressing it is to watch. Kids of around five years of age are the only conceivable audience—it's too immature for anyone older than that—but why subject even them to low-rent trash that sends out bad messages about the acceptance of rotten behavior? As for adult viewers, they shouldn't be at all surprised if they leave grumpy and dismayed by the lack of quality Hollywood has lately deemed appropriate for widespread consumption. Every step of the way during this film's journey to the big-screen should have been fraught with worried eyes and questioning voices. Clearly, no one making it cared enough to bother.
As a comic strip character, Marmaduke kept silent. As a transplant to movies, he and the rest of the dog and cat characters jabber about with nary a moment of silence among them. They talk to each other, they talk to the camera, they talk to humans (who blessedly can't hear them), and all the while the viewer is driven mad by how asinine and ceaseless their back-and-forth conversations are. Dogs and cats are highly expressive and resilient animals on their own. Watching "Marmaduke," it quickly became apparent that not only could the same story have been told without a single dog or cat uttering a syllable, but that watching them in their natural real-life interactions would have made for a significantly superior film. The potential sweetness, alas, is wiped clean every time the voice performers come into play and the script of embarrassing one-liners and bon mots take over. It's probably best to not discuss the house party Marmaduke throws when the Winslows go away (complete with tired roof-jumping reference to "Almost Famous"), or the dog surfing competition set-piece.
If Marmaduke isn't likable—and he's not—and cat Carlos, in a decidedly racist move, is stereotypically voiced by Hispanic actor George Lopez (2010's "Valentine's Day"), then it's just as well that the Winslow family aren't the most endearing of people, either. The only time Barbara shows interest in Marmaduke is when she is using him to attract a boy's attention. Otherwise, she whines her way through the proceedings, claiming she wants to go back to Kansas, then does a 180-degree about-face the moment it looks like she might get her way. Meanwhile, no one is tolerant of Phil's job—the only money coming into the house, natch—and they pout accordingly until he puts his profession on the line to satisfy their own wants and needs. Perhaps Marmaduke himself gets his narcissistic personality from them.
Of all the vocal talent, only Emma Stone's (2009's "Zombieland") unforced turn as love interest Mazie doesn't make a viewer want to stab their eardrums with a Q-tip. As Marmaduke, Owen Wilson should have quit while he was ahead with 2008's "Marley & Me." Sadly, the live-action actors don't get to hide in a sound booth. Lee Pace (2010's "When in Rome") and Judy Greer (2009's "Love Happens"), usually delicious performers, are stripped of all their natural charisma and emptily smile on cue in between wondering what they are doing in such thankless roles. Greer's Debbie is especially underwritten, the script calling for her to stand around cooking and cleaning while sharing no palpable relationships with her kids or any other hobbies or aspirations.
Kids' pic or not, "Marmaduke" is a pathetic waste of time and money for all concerned. An amalgamation of dopey physical pratfalls, yucky (if not unpredictable) bathroom humor, mixed morals, amateurish editing, and only the thinnest sense of narrative cohesion—random side characters conveniently pop up all in the same place during the stupid sinkhole climax—the movie pushes one's patience to the brink. No one—not dogs, not cats, and not human beings—escapes looking good. In the film's final scene (following, it should be noted, a nauseatingly unctuous choreographed dance sequence performed by creepy CG-animated dogs to "What I Like About You" by The Romantics), Marmaduke waits for Phil and Debbie to settle into bed for the night so that he can let rip flatulence in their faces. "It never gets old," he snidely remarks. Yes, as a matter of fact, it does.