The Art of Racing in the Rain Review
PG: For thematic material
Studios: 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Original Film, Shifting Gears Productions, Starbucks Entertainment
Run Time: 1 hr and 49 minutes
Director: Simon Curtis | Screenwriter: Mark Bomback
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, Kevin Costner
Release Date: August 9, 2019
Based on the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a heartfelt tale narrated by a witty and philosophical dog named Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner). Through his bond with his owner, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One race car driver, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition and understands that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life.
You know what they say: every dog has its day, and that day couldn’t have come any sooner for The Art of Racing in the Rain. Forget The Art of Racing in the Rain, you should’ve called this The Art of Seeking Distribution. For nearly an entire decade this film adaptation of the popular best selling novel by Garth Stein has attempted to get off the ground. Hopping from studio to studio, this family drama centered on the dog of a race car driver has finally been given its time to shine at Fox 2000, the mid-budget studio that Disney decided to close down a few moments after the buyout of Twentieth Century Fox, cancelling a number of projects that were in pre-production. But since principal photography was already complete, this is one of the division’s final releases. I can just picture the mouse over there telling this movie:
Granted, this is opening on a week swamped with major high profile family films. Disney should’ve at least had a wee bit of faith, for this is the best dog drama family film of the year.
Given its title, you would expect this to be a sports movie with a dog in it. That would be inaccurate. The title is a huge metaphor for the unforeseen circumstances that life might throw at you and all you can do is ask yourself if you’re prepared for it or not. It’s philosophical, which is the prominent dialect of the central lead’s mindset. When you’re introduced to Enzo as a pup, you’re a bit thrown off by Kevin Costner’s narration for obvious reasons. In case you didn’t notice, Costner doesn’t objectively have the appealing voice for narrating a dog as cute as Enzo. But the longer you get to know Enzo and his personality, the more you warm up to Costner’s narration as his lines of dialogue — along with his delivery — help construct a personality for the dog. Part of what makes this film stand out amongst its peers is Enzo himself. Unlike the main characters in those W. Bruce Cameron movies, Enzo’s personality is more than a simplistic loyalty trait. Costner’s gruff yet wholesome narration benefits this adorable and surprisingly insightful dog to connect with his audience through his personality.
Enzo is just an easygoing cynical dog who shares a special bond with his human Denny, a Formula One race car driver. As he grows with his owner, he witnesses the uncontrollable twists and turns life hands him, such as seeing Denny fall in love, settle down, and have a child. Throughout the film, Enzo analyzes each unpredictable situation in contemplative philosophies. When tragedy strikes, he feels the burden being trapped in a dog’s body, wishing he could do much more than his limitations. He abides by the Mongolian legend that a dog "who is prepared" will be reincarnated in his next life as a human and this story is his journey for that preparation.
It sounds incredibly strange, yes. It’s a lot to take in for a movie about a dog, but that earnestness in Enzo’s heart — seeing the world through his perspective — is the major heft of the film. Despite how saccharine and sentimental the drama around Enzo is, you’re engaged by it due to his character, director Simon Curtis’ vision, having you see the world through the dog’s perspective throughout, and most noticeably the performances by his cast.
Milo ‘I can’t stray from family dramas’ Ventimiglia provides a decent leading performance proving he should star in more features. The This Is Us actor has honed his dramatic acting skills so well over the past couple of years that his performance in this delivers the right amount of chills and tears. He never goes over the top with his delivery, for his character Denny handles each situation with a mellow attitude, treading the right lines no matter how heartbreaking they may be. The same goes for Amanda Seyfried as his love interest, Eve. Tragic drama effectively hits her (to say the least) and she handles that condition with respect and care. Seyfried and Ventimiglia are great together, for their characters are just genuinely good people that you warm up to, and they’re great to look at as well. I don’t watch This Is Us, but this did put me on the Ventimiglia fanboy boat. He’s a dreamy dude to look at and now I understand why ladies love him as much as he loves starring in dramas.
An aspect that makes this stronger than most of the recent dog movies is that it hardly aims for the low-hanging fruit of dog humor. Enzo barely causes any mischief, and when he does, it’s always for a good cause that is cathartic. The best he does is talk trash, for he has the cynicism of Garfield, the loyalty/imagination of Snoopy, and the mind of a philosopher. Thus, most of the humor comes from his dialogue and brief visual gags that express Enzo’s inner thoughts as he uses his imagination to fill the void whenever he’s left at home. When his humans are gone, the camera sticks with Enzo as you feel his anxiousness and the stress of being isolated with nothing but your thoughts, making for some of the best scenes in the story. It doesn’t attempt to deliver any cute dog vignettes to pad out its near two-hour run time, for it tells its story and drives it straight home.
The emotional beats are planted well, but the sentimentality is so overbearingly dramatic that it’s egregious bland. The narrative that Enzo experiences is truly a dime a dozen trope in the drama department. They are genuinely sad, but if it wasn’t for those W. Bruce Cameron film adaptations this year, which (poorly) stepped on mature themed boundaries, this would’ve been a true standout. The film emphasizes how life is unpredictable, but it confuses unpredictability with immediate bombshells, for the story drops one by the midpoint, gear-shifting the narrative to feel like an entirely separate movie. A huge emotional moment occurs at the midpoint and immediately after the story drifts to a new area similar to the Celeste/Mary Louise storyline from Big Little Lies season 2 where Denny must face his antagonistic high class in-laws. Take that as you may, but during that second half, the dialogue started to get worse as the mediocrity started to become visible. But the well-written nature of the dog and serviceable performances hold enough weight to compensate for the average storytelling.