Owen Wilson and Marley and Me In all the media coverage of Owen Wilson’s reported suicide attempt, in August 2007—the doleful images of Luke Wilson fighting his way through the paparazzi’s popping flashbulbs to visit his brother in the hospital, the cynical speculation about whether it was his breakup with Kate Hudson that pushed him to the brink of self-destruction, the bizarre details that were feasted upon by the celebrity bloggers (at one point, rock star Courtney Love, of all people, accused British comic Steve Coogan of being a bad influence on Wilson)—a curious fact got lost. Namely, that in The Darjeeling Limited, released a little more than a month after Wilson was rushed to the emergency room, the Dallas-born actor put forth his most intriguing character to date: a halting Peter Pan, all grown up yet still very much lost, who wanders through the movie in bandages from a motorcycle accident that he caused himself. Critics politely avoided pushing the real-world parallels too hard, and the movie itself proved painfully strained and twee. But The Darjeeling Limited contained within it a glimmer of hope. Despite having drifted into artistic inertia, with a series of interchangeable performances in movies like Wedding Crashers and Starsky and Hutch, and despite the suffering he was obviously enduring in his private life, Wilson had telegraphed to the audience that he also had the potential for an extraordinary second act.

Good news, fans: That second act is here. In Marley and Me, based on John Grogan’s memoir about life with an unruly Labrador retriever, Wilson bravely ignores W. C. Fields’s famous mandate about never working with animals or children and delivers a performance that’s all the more noteworthy because of those real-world parallels. It’s hard to talk too much about the film, which was unfinished when I screened it in mid-October, but what is apparent is the newfound restraint and pathos Wilson brings to the story of an anxious man, rapidly approaching forty, who must come to terms with the choices he’s made over the years. For the first time in his career, Wilson is genuinely affecting.

“You’re the comic voice of South Florida,” exclaims exasperated newspaper editor Arnie Klein (Alan Arkin) to columnist John Grogan (Wilson) midway through the film. Klein can’t understand why Grogan, who has made his name writing popular columns about his misadventures with his wife, Jenny (Jennifer Aniston), and their incorrigible dog, Marley, still dreams of being a news reporter. It’s one of many moments that seem to be as much about Wilson as Grogan. On the surface, the stakes in Marley and Me, a film that explores the gap that opens up for many of us between the life we’re naturally suited to live and the one we always imagined ourselves to be living, aren’t especially grand: John and Jenny adopt their pesky pet, have three children, and eventually come to discover that adulthood isn’t quite what they expected.

But with the laugh lines steadily expanding around his watery blue eyes and a mischievous grin that these days seems a little more prone to collapse into a gentle frown, Wilson, who turned forty last month, brings the underlying tensions of Grogan’s story to the fore. The actor’s usual tics (the nasally, ironic voice; the languid-bordering-on-indifferent manner) have been reined in. In some of his scenes opposite Aniston—particularly one in which John returns from work only to be blindsided by Jenny’s insistence that Marley be permanently kicked out of the house—he captures the frustration of a long-committed man who no longer knows how to communicate with his beloved. Most unexpected of all are his interactions with Grey’s Anatomy’s Eric Dane, a tall, handsome actor who plays the skirt-chasing, globe-trotting journalist friend whom Grogan can’t help but envy. The dynamic between the two men makes it sometimes seem as if, in Marley and Me, Wilson is embroiled in a kind of symbolic war with his own frat-pack past.

Has Owen Wilson taken stock of his life and reemerged as a more measured, more mature, more melancholy soul? That’s a question whose answer deserves to remain private. But I do hope that the events of the past eighteen or so months—or, at the very least, the experience of shooting Marley and Me—have allowed him to realize that he’s much better than the material he was allowing himself to be dragged down by. It’s worth noting that Marley and Me follows on the heels of another Wilson film this year, Drillbit Taylor, completed before the actor’s reported suicide attempt. That movie, about a homeless bum who becomes a bodyguard for a group of bullied kids, finds him coasting and detached, once again playing a hipster-slacker who barely has to engage with his fellow actors. (From the Department of Blessings in Disguise: Wilson’s personal problems forced him to drop out of Ben Stiller’s obnoxiously self-serving comedy Tropic Thunder, in which he was supposed to appear as a hipster-slacker Hollywood agent.)

This is the kind of role that Wilson needs to let go of for good. As both The Darjeeling Limited and Marley and Me have shown, there’s a way for him to mature on-screen without sacrificing his impish and, indeed, sometimes juvenile appeal. The road ahead won’t be easy for him, certainly not if he continues to tap into his own private pain to animate his characters. But with more projects like Marley and Me, he might just realize that he’s capable of becoming a truly iconic cinematic clown, the kind who, like Charlie Chaplin or Bill Murray, can make us laugh and then imperceptibly break our hearts.

Growin’ Owen: What Wilson should do next.

Considering that Owen Wilson has only one other film in the can—the obligatory sequel to Night at the Museum, set for release next May—his career would seem to be at a unique crossroads. How does he capitalize on the achievement of Marley and Me and continue moving in unexpected directions? Well, he might want to start by reconsidering his next announced project, a buddy comedy titled Blood Brothers about the difficulties of being best friends with a vampire (one Internet site has already labeled the movie a potential contender for a Razzie Award, which is given to the year’s worst films). Instead, he should take a look at John Grogan’s latest memoir, The Longest Trip Home, a tender portrait of growing up in—and eventually breaking away from—an extremely religious family. Grogan’s mixture of melancholy and good cheer is the ideal fit for Wilson. And he could reteam with Aniston and Marley, two of his most appealing co-stars in years.

Christopher Kelly is the film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.