01/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thank You, Marley & Me , For Bringing Jennifer Aniston back

Marley & Me has committed sins that are unforgivable even by dog film standards. It adapted the sappiest memoir not written by Mitch Albom, exploited the holiday movie crowd for $37 million in box office returns and extended Owen Wilson's stay in family comedy purgatory.

Though it patronized the American public and did irreparable damage to film in general, Marley and Me achieved what marginally better films including Bruce Almighty, Along Came Polly, Rumor Has It, Derailed, The Break Up and Friends With Money could not: The return of Jennifer Aniston. For this, the nation owes Marley & Me a debt of gratitude.

As do I. By the time March 7, 1996, had arrived, Syracuse, N.Y., was well on its way to nearly 171 inches of snow for the winter. With flakes already filling the first floor windows just below my dorm room at the Shaw Residence Hall, it seemed like as good a time as any for issue No. 729 of Rolling Stone to arrive; Complete with its cover featuring a naked Friends-era Aniston. One could argue that it was far too cold for Aniston to cover herself in only her fingers and a pair of panties, as she did on a photo inside, but this writer and several other dorm residents of various persuasions, kept that image on the wall until the end of spring semester.

When Aniston appeared in only a tie on the cover of GQ's January 2009 issue, it was almost unfair. Much of the population has spent the last 12 years growing wrinklier, rounder, grayer and balder. Aniston, despite very public slights and stumbles, is as well-preserved as a Smithsonian exhibition.

This warrants mentioning primarily because Aniston has spent the last few years being reduced to tabloid fodder for aging Gen Xers whose lives are becoming more mundane with each passing wedding, child and year. For an Olympiad, mediocre onscreen fare was the only reply from an underrated comedic actress whose adherents are more likely write poisoned pen comments beneath a TMZ story about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt than actually pay money to see a Jennifer Aniston film. Marley and Me may not look like a comeback film, but Aniston found her voice during its publicity push.

First came the guest spot on 30 Rock; then her "uncool" comment in Vogue about Jolie's hookup with Pitt while making Mr. and Mrs. Smith; then her move onto Anna Wintour's hit list after saying Vogue went "tabloid" by focusing on the comment. Whatever. The rehash of all of these events and whatever she's doing with John Mayer sounds like a fan fiction lead in for her nude photo shoot for GQ.

That shoot, and the oft-forgotten interview that expresses her frustration with Pitt-Jolie questions and being pigeonholed as the sad-sack girl without a guy, highlighted Aniston's best assets. She's real, she's funny and she's hot. Though her cryogenically frozen figure will have to succumb to time at some point, her humor and humility have kept her eminently more relatable than the woman to whom she's intrinsically tied.

Empathy routinely poured kerosene on the Aniston-Jolie fire. In Aniston's case, fans often say they can relate to a woman who was shrugged off for an exotic, seemingly crazy, attention-seeking person reminiscent of that girl from college who was such a "sexual being" that she simply had to steal your boyfriend. That's a nice, exciting story, but nowhere near true.

In reality, Aniston's seamless fit into working-class roles and girl-next-door identity earned her more loyal followers than any homewrecking Academy Award winner ever could. It made her flair-laden suburban waitress in Office Space so endearing and her pained portrayal of a Madame Bovary-inspired big box store clerk in The Good Girl so believable. Guys want to date those characters, girls often are those characters and Angelina Jolie couldn't realistically play any of those characters.

Of course, Aniston isn't any of those characters. She's dating a rock star and she earns more for uttering three lines in a film than any of her characters would in a year. Then again, Bruce Springsteen doesn't work in a factory and Jay-Z hasn't dealt drugs since before Lil' Wayne was born. It's a problem of perception, and while she may be sexy enough to pull off the Cougar role she envisions for herself in her dream project Pumas, she'll probably earn more praise as put-upon, marriage-hungry Beth in next year's He's Just Not That Into You.

Which wouldn't be so bad. If she can ride a dog like Marley and Me out of the tabloids and into her second stint as America's Sweetheart and most prized pinup, she can put off being a puma for just a bit longer.