By Jim Slotek
If you only know dog culture from movies and social media videos, you really only know the “Awwww” side.
Unfortunately, film treatments have little narrative wiggle room for something like The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein’s imaginative best-seller about a philosophical terrier-lab mix named Enzo, whose human is a race car driver, and who looks back on his life as he faces death.
It’s an unfilmable novel in a way, Enzo’s filtering of the human condition (love, tragedies, the miracle of babies) through a dog’s internal monologue couldn’t sustain an entire film without some wildly original approach. We don’t get that in the movie, The Art of Racing in the Rain from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold).
The movie follows the safer road of squeezing as many tears as possible from the story’s human drama, making for a much more emotional experience, indeed a four-hankie one if you are a sucker for movies like Marley and Me and A Dog’s Journey.
Maybe it’s staring in the face of an actual adorable canine (a golden retriever in the movie for some reason) that moves the dial from a book you think about, to a movie that’s almost entirely emotional in tone (I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying). Some aspects of the book’s thoughtfulness and whimsy do survive – chief among them, Enzo’s obsession with his owner’s daughter’s plush unicorn toy, which he imagines is demonic.
As voiced by Kevin Costner, it’s hard to tell if Enzo’s tone is avuncular or bored.
But given the limitations of Enzo’s narration, it’s inevitable that The Art of Racing in the Rain will boil down to its lugubrious human story, melodrama acted by humans and sporadically commented upon by Enzo. Milo Ventimiglia (This is Us, Heroes), is Denny, a race car driver whose specialty is negotiating high-speed turns in the rain. He adopts Enzo (naming him after Enzo Ferrari) on a whim, and soon introduces him to television as his window on the world and the human condition, and specifically to racing (to the point where he knows the details of Ayrton Senna’s death).
But the meat of the story is Denny’s love affair with Eve (Amanda Seyfried), his eventual wife and the mother of their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). The movie opens, as mentioned, at an ending, and the Denny we meet is living alone. So, it starts on a portentous note.
There’s an incurable illness, there are proactively concerned parent-in-laws who disapprove of Denny’s undependable choice of career (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan, the latter of whom is portrayed as pretty much a monster), there’s a court case and a whole lot of melodrama that is only compelling when Enzo is part of the scene (protecting Zoe, guarding Eve, cleverly giving grief to “The Twins” – as he nicknames the in-laws).
Boiled down to its human narrative The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t much of a story. The hints at the subtleties of what could have been (Enzo smelling “decay” on a not-yet-diagnosed person, his infatuation with the Mongolians’ belief that all dogs are on a journey to human-hood, and that his self-awareness means he is on the verge of becoming one himself) suggest another movie entirely.
As it is, The Art of Racing in the Rain won’t disappoint anyone with basic expectations of a dog movie. It’s full of aww, if not wonder.
The Art of Racing in the Rain. Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner (voice) and Amanda Seyfried. Opens wide, Friday, August 9.