The Art of Racing in the Rain is a movie 10 years in the making. Based on the New York Times bestseller by Garth Stein, Universal acquired the rights to the film back in 2009, and over the next decade, studio after studio would go through a rotating roster of stars and directors best suited to bring the story to life. The current incarnation, directed by Simon Curtis and starring Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, and Kevin Costner as the voice of a very philosophical dog, only came together two years ago. And if you asked me if those 10 years were worth it, I’d have to tell you, no.
But The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t a waste of time, per se. As it is — a weepy tearjerker that tugs at heartstrings and provides a healthy dose of Ventimiglia holding a puppy in his buff arms — The Art of Racing in the Rain is more a way to while away the time in a world where every bend, every curve in the narrative is a little too smooth, and every treacly sentiment is doled out like dog treats. Predictable and rote, The Art of Racing in the Rain nevertheless has its heart in the right place, even if there is not much art to it and precious little racing.
The Art of Racing in the Rain tells the life story of Enzo (Costner), a surprisingly erudite dog who begins his end-of-life narration as if he was a musician in a biopic that has to think about his whole life before he plays. We see Enzo as a grizzly-voiced pup who is chosen by race car driver Denny (Ventimiglia), and instantly takes to Denny’s fast-paced lifestyle. But things instantly slow down when Eve (Seyfried, styled as angelic as possible) enters their lives. Denny and Eve soon get married and have a daughter and their lives are set on the most idyllic track, even if Denny’s racing career is not. However, things take a turn for the worse when Eve dies from cancer and Denny becomes locked in a bitter custody battle for his daughter with Eve’s uptight parents (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker). All of this is narrated by a wry Costner, who philosophizes about Mongolian tribal beliefs while engaging in a fierce battle against a zebra stuffed animal.
With the abundance of heartstring-tugging dog movies taking over theaters now, The Art of Racing in the Rain does little to set itself apart. Enzo’s esoteric musings are entertaining to an extent — this is a movie that has a raspy-voiced Costner describe the “brutal burlesque” of a zebra-centric hallucination — and there are some fun, fantastical flourishes that inject some energy into the sentimental slog. But the film is so maddeningly predictable in its melodramatic curveballs that it starts to feel insulting. Seyfried is doomed from the start to play the tragic dead wife, so beatific and sweetly bland is she. And Donovan and Baker are saddled with horribly flat “monsters-in-law” roles that are better suited to a Lifetime movie. The one bright spot is perhaps Ventimiglia, who has had years of experience with this kind of sentimental melodrama on This is Us, and makes a perfect show of his brand of floppy-haired masculinity. The movie does know the power, at least, of showing Milo Ventimiglia wrap his impossibly buff arms around a tiny pup.
The film improves in the second half, when it becomes centered around the custody battle, which provides enough real-world drama for the emotions to feel authentic. Enzo takes a step back in this latter half too, and the film becomes a two-hander with Ventimiglia, who admirably shoulders the Kramer v. Kramer-esque narrative turn.
The one thing that The Art of Racing in the Rain is shockingly missing in is racing sequences. There are perhaps two or three racing scenes in total, and none of them play much of a part in the plot. Rather, the “racing in the rain” referred to in the title is the journey of life itself and overcoming the obstacles that one faces along the way. It’s cheesy, to be sure, but Curtis gets the message across, even if the film’s themes about reincarnation and doggy nirvana fly in the face of its coded Christian values.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a film built to formula. But despite its algorithmic properties and its blatant tearjerking moments, it’s a sweet and sincere movie that will surely appeal to dog lovers. Yes, you can add Enzo to your list of good movie dogs.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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