Like its titular hero, the gawky Great Dane of comics fame, "Marmaduke" the movie is an awkward thing. Part silly, talking-animal comedy — replete with toilet humor and lame wordplay of the sort that delights 5-year-olds — it also involves, for much of the last half-hour, the prospect of our hero going to that big doghouse in the sky.
What's up with that? After "Marley & Me," is Owen Wilson (who provides the voice of Marmaduke) now contractually obligated to make movies every other year or so about losing a beloved pet? The film's final reel — in which Marmaduke runs away from home and is swept away by a broken water main — is bizarrely intense. I wasn't exactly sitting on the edge of my seat, but I can imagine a lot of the movie's target demographic will be. It's like an episode of "Trauma" tacked onto the end of "Doctor Dolittle."
As for the rest of "Marmaduke" — you know, the funny part — it's just not very funny. Lines like "Get your bark on," "Who let the dogs out?" and "Cowabarka" abound. Many of the jokes revolve around excretory functions.
Set in Southern California, where Marmaduke's family has moved from Kansas, the story follows two threads. The first has to do with doggy politics: whether the pedigreed dogs at the park are better than the mutts, which apparently include Marmaduke (there's a reference to him being a mixed breed). He tangles with Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland), the park's alpha male, while flirting with Bosco's girlfriend, a collie named Jezebel (singer Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas), even as Marmaduke ignores the scruffy mutt who really loves him (Emma Stone).
Meanwhile, Marmaduke's owner (Lee Pace) must negotiate the office politics of the organic dog food company he works for, trying to please a demanding boss (William H. Macy) without alienating his own family. In parallel developments, both man and beast will learn the importance of being true to oneself.
This is all well and good, but the movie is characterized less by this uplifting message than by frequent references to a well-known chain of pet supply superstores, sponsors of a dog surfing contest that is integral to the story. I won't mention the name; the movie itself is already like one long commercial.
As for all the lowbrow humor and groaning puns, I can't say I wasn't warned. A few minutes into the movie, Marmaduke releases an explosive bit of flatulence in his owners' bed. "I know, it's juvenile," he says, "but it's all I've got."
Now that's what I call truth in advertising.