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Barks Its Way to the Checkered Flag

Kevin Costner
Kevin Costner
Fox 2000 Pictures
 109 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed BySimon Curtis
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner
The Art of Racing in the Rain

Let’s start this review with a truism, one that I’ve probably used twice already this year: It’s impossible to make a truly bad movie that features a lot of close-ups of a very expressive dog. And it’s even harder to make a bad movie if the dog “talks,” that is if the dog’s thoughts are voiced by a human actor. So, earlier this year, we had A Dog’s Way Home and A Dog’s Purpose, both flawed but passable dramedies. And now I have another addendum: It’s hardest of all to make a truly bad movie that features a talking dog who sounds like Kevin Costner. That’s pretty much all that The Art of Racing in the Rain has going for it, but that’s enough.


The dog, in this case, is Enzo (named for Enzo Ferrari), a golden retriever adopted as a puppy by Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring race car driver currently working as a driving instructor and mechanic for his friend Don Kitch (Gary Cole). Denny’s career is somewhat hit and miss, with occasional gigs filling in on Formula 1 teams, which result in Enzo being left behind. But Denny’s life changes when he meets and later marries teacher Eve (Amanda Seyfried). Although jealous of Eve at first, Enzo relents, especially when Eve and Denny’s little bundle of joy, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), arrives.


It’s a rule of thumb in talking dog movies that the lives of the humans involved rarely go smoothly, but no similar movie has heaped quite as much melodramatic grief on its protagonist than The Art of Racing in the Rain dumps on poor Denny. It starts with Enzo detecting a bad smell coming from Eve (dogs are actually used in the treatment of certain diseases), followed by Eve collapsing. Later comes the dreaded and predictable cancer diagnosis. In most films, that would be enough to saddle any protagonist with, but screenwriter Mark Bomback isn’t done. As Eve suffers through one of the most protracted cinematic fadeouts ever, her wealthy domineering father Maxwell (Martin Donovan) and easily manipulated mother Trish (Kathy Baker) use every means at their disposal to keep Eve and Zoe away from Denny. They (primarily Maxwell) claim he’s not able to look after his family because he’s off racing all the time.


So, The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t merely a 21st-century version of Love Story; it’s also a reworking of Kramer vs. Kramer as well, with the wealthy grandparents stepping in for Meryl Streep. And throughout all of this, under director Simon Curtis’ guidance, the human characters aren’t merely stereotypes but the most stereotypical of stereotypes. Ventimiglia, Seyfried, and young Armstrong seem to have stepped straight out of central casting for a happy family (until Seyfried gets sick and falls into the weak-but-plucky cancer victim category), while Donovan takes every opportunity to be a wealthy jerk.


Truth be told, without Enzo in the mix, The Art of Racing in the Rain would probably be unbearable for all but the most dedicated weepy soap opera fans. But Enzo is present in almost every scene even as a spectator sitting in the corner. And, moreover, he sounds like Kevin Costner. In this year’s earlier talking dog movies, Josh Gad and Bryce Dallas Howard provided the vocals for the talking dog, and both of them emphasized their characters’ unfamiliarity with human behavior and boundless canine optimism.


The Art of Racing in the Rain is structured in large part as a flashback. In the very first scene, Denny comes home to discover an elderly, nearly comatose Enzo who is too weak to move away from the puddles of urine he has left behind. Costner plays Enzo as that elderly dog reminiscing about his life and those of the humans he loves. Naturally, Costner sounds far more world-weary than Gad or Howard did (ironically, his vocalization is close to that of Harrison Ford, a similar-sounding actor who provided the voice of a similarly veteran dog in The Secret Life of Pets 2).


In a movie with as many somber notes as The Art of Racing in the Rain has, humor is a must. Not surprisingly, Enzo provides the vast majority of the gags. There are a couple of poop and fart jokes, but most of the humor comes from the dialogue rather than silly antics performed by the various dogs portraying Enzo. There are a few clueless canine jokes, but Enzo proves surprisingly wise in other ways, talking about the Mongolian beliefs that dogs will be reincarnated. When Kevin Costner delivers these lines, they produce warm, comforting grins rather than laugh-out-loud hysterics.


The Art of Racing in the Rain is based on a best-selling novel by Garth Stein (which I have not read) that, by all accounts is even more melodramatic than the film is, with poor Denny having to face other legal challenges as well. I don’t know how well Stein guided readers through the excessively weepy moments, but Curtis and Bomback have two advantages Stein didn’t. First, as previously mentioned, the voice of Kevin Costner goes a long way to soothing the audience. And second, there is Enzo himself. He doesn’t do a lot of tricks in the movie, but he has mastered the ability to appear loving and soulful when sitting with his head in Denny’s lap while the camera focuses on him in one long take after another. Of course, come to think of it, pretty much all dogs have mastered that same trick, which is why there are no truly bad talking dog movies.


The Art of Racing in the Rain is the type of movie that critics deride for its overt and overwhelming sentimentality but audiences, primarily dog lovers to begin with, love for those same reasons. From the very first scene, viewers know they will be in for a tearjerker, but it’s doubtful many of them realized just how many tears the film would jerk. Speaking for myself, I got through Eve’s illness and the custody dispute, but, then, the last two or three scenes in the movie (one of them is depicted in the poster above but the other I just won’t spoil) got to me. I suppose most other viewers will buy into the melodramatics far more easily. Curtis, Bomback, and the human cast do an excellent job of presenting the sad scenes, but the movie succeeds because of Costner and Enzo. Yes, it’s manipulative and goes overboard too often… but it’s a dog movie. And, doggone it, I’m a dog lover, and it worked well enough for me.  

In this clip, Enzo helps out at Milo Ventimiglia's wedding.

Read other reviews of The Art of Racing in the Rain: 

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019) on IMDb