Entertainment

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A tired narrative in a saturated dog movie market

The existential dog movie sweepstakes get another entry with the slickly produced and turgidly paced The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s the second canine-centred melodrama about reincarnation to hit the screen this summer, after A Dog’s Journey. More emotionally grounded than its litter-mate, this film about a dog and a driver struggling to make ends meet is no less shameless in the way it traffics in tragedy (both dog and person) to make facile pronouncements on humanity.

The long-gestating adaptation of Garth Stein’s bestselling novel, which predated A Dog’s Purpose, as fans will surely point out, is told through the point of view of a beautiful golden retriever named Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner) who dreams of being reincarnated as a man. Enzo narrates the film from his senescence, thinking back to the early days of his long life with his beloved master Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), who works as a mechanic, racing teacher, and driver on the GT circuit. Enzo and Denny are a perfect pair, watching old races on TV and hanging out at the track, until Denny settles down and starts a family with an ESL teacher named Eve (played with sleepy charisma by Amanda Seyfried).

Anyone who’s seen one of these soapy family dramas about a man and his dog should know to expect tears. But The Art of Racing in the Rain is somewhat rare in telling us from the get-go that Enzo’s days are numbered, inviting us to consider the events that follow as if they are a greatest hits montage of one dog’s life, even though the film rarely bothers to show us the pup’s visual perspective. That opening reveal is one of the only surprising details in an annoyingly overdetermined script that slowly hits all the expected marks over a far-too-long 109-minute running time.

Director Simon Curtis, who has previously had the good fortune of adapting richer texts by the likes of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens, never quite gets over the disjunct between the standard sad tale about a pretty young couple and the complications of work and health that make their lives harder than they have to be. Enzo never leaves us wanting for his philosophical musings on how to live a good life or how to master the titular art, which has something to do with creating your own destiny in spite of external factors.


Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried in The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019).

Doane Gregory – © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox

But, as in the other talking dog movies, the dog’s loquacious, overly folksy voiceover feels artificially grafted onto prosaic visuals and a tedious plot. One wishes, at least, for a more fantastical point of view that might have made the footage of a golden retriever staring goofily at his loved ones square better with the chatty Enzo we hear dispensing racing trivia and expounding on the nature of life, love, and mortality.

Part of the problem is that, with the exception of Seyfried, who is either a dog lover or a much better actress than she’s given credit for, the cast’s interactions with Enzo feel perfunctory and pat. Whatever chemistry between human and animal co-stars might look like, this isn’t it. Ventimiglia in particular is a cold fish, bringing too much of his James Dean-derived nonchalance from Gilmore Girls to a part that calls for more warmth. Seyfried feels a bit better connected to her character, though Eve’s physical fatigue may well be a function of the actress’s own exhaustion at a part that consists of silently suffering and telling her husband to follow his dreams.


Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019).

Doane Gregory – © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox

Where The Art of Racing in the Rain stands out a bit from its competition is in the singularity of some of the episodes it takes from Stein’s novel, including an oddly harrowing sequence where Enzo is left to fend for himself in the house. Here, he finds himself dwelling on both his capacity to survive and his ultimate helplessness. If anything, though, these little windows into a more insightful movie that has something to say about the vulnerability of our furry companions only emphasizes how frustratingly banal it is the rest of the time.

2 stars

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