Movie Review: A dog, a racecar driver and “The Art of Racing in the Rain”

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Whatever virtues it displayed on the printed page, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” makes a movie of modest, melodramatic pleasures, mainly homey aphorisms about motor racing and the hidden life of dogs.

As these are growled out by our narrator — Oscar winner Kevin Costner is the voice of Enzo the Golden Retriever belonging to race car driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) — they have the raspy gravitas of Great Truths about the human condition, racing and a dog’s lot.

“I could smell the day on him,” Enzo narrates when Denny gets home. “Motor oil and gas…and roast chicken.

It’s a movie you either go with or injure yourself, rolling your eyes over. As I love dogs, cars and am a lifelong Costner fan, tally me in the former category. But the thin charms of this script and a charisma-starved leading man turn make that vote a close call.

Enzo, as he tells it, “was meant to be his dog.” His reasoning has to do with Mongolian beliefs about dogs eventually reincarnating into the sort of human they are destined to be.

Enzo? He was named for the founder of Ferrari, was meant to drive fast, win trophies and shake bottles of champagne in the winner’s circle. As he’s seen a documentary on TV about this Mongolian dog-to-human reincarnation, he makes it his life to watch Denny’s races, review the cockpit camera and TV coverage of his performances, and learn.

“I will remember.”

Enzo passes on insights about how “the car goes where the eye goes,” about a what makes a great racing driver, how when it rains on the road courses where Denny drives IMSA sports cars (Porsches, BMWs, etc), working his way toward Formula 1, it’s the driver who takes chances, who skids through the turns by choice and not by accident brought on by the conditions, that wins.

Truthfully, though, it’s not about the racing. “Art of Racing” is about a dog’s life, and a few human ones. That part of the tale begins when Eve (Amanda Seyfried) bumps into them, and Enzo figures out what’s happening almost before Denny does.

“Denny was clearly taken with her grooming.”

Eve doesn’t win him over quickly, but Seyfried sells the film’s most romantic line with all the warmth you’d expect.

“You don’t mind if I love him, too?” is just a whispered aside to Enzo, but it’s perfect and perfectly touching.

As they court and marry, Enzo makes his peace with the pairing and all that comes with that, using it to learn more about human behavior.

“I never really grasped the concept of money and why humans have such a need for it.”

A smattering of observations like that are mixed with a few on-point survival facts about dogs that Enzo passes on when he’s left behind in a locked house for days, and how dogs age, along with the usual anthropomorphized nonsense about what a dog “is really thinking.”

Screenwriter Mark Bomback, who has a resume peppered with action film credits — “The Wolverine,” Unstoppable,” “Total Recall” — was an odd choice to adapt Garth Stein’s best seller. He doesn’t quite “get” it. A lot of “cute” is blundered, even though Costner’s reliably droll way with a line makes “deadpan” work.

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The arc of career intersects with the arcs of human lives and dog’s lives (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan play Eve’s parents) here, and that’s really the meat of “Racing in the Rain.” That plays as pure melodrama on the screen.

And Ventimiglia, of TV’s “This Is Us,” doesn’t deliver the pathos we’d expect from the sadness, tragedy and trials Denny motors through. As he’s not asked to do comedy, romantic or dog-owning, either, Denny becomes a blank page on his resume.

Can’t say he’s a subtle actor or a bad one, as there’s virtually no data here to make the call.

That leaves it all up to the dog and the dog’s story, and the pathos of that makes this weeper on wheels a winner. Barely.

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MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material

Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole and the voice of Kevin Costner

Credits: Directed by Simon Curtis, script by Mark Bomback based on the Garth Stein novel. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:49

 

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