Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Garth Stein, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is narrated by a Golden Retriever named Enzo as he looks back on his life with race car driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) and all the lessons he’s learned.
If you haven’t read the book, there’s a lot of tragedy and heartbreak, but the celebration of the bond between humans and dogs (mostly) shines through the schmaltz.
Talking or “wise beyond their species animals” is already a genre unto itself, but Enzo’s insights here about wishing to be reincarnated or remembering specific races he watched with Denny are sweet, but often eye-roll-inducing. The dog actor playing Enzo, however, manages to convey a soulful depth that needs no words.
As for the humans, “This is Us” star Ventimiglia as Denny, Amanda Seyfried as his wife Eve, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong as their daughter Zoe, are all immensely likable, but even they can’t always rise about the clichéd, tearjerker plot.
Note: Spoilers from here on out.
The film begins with an elderly Enzo (gravelly voice supplied by Kevin Costner) looking back on the ups and downs with his human family. From the first moment, the movie is bittersweet because you know his time on earth is almost over.
Enzo’s death (which we know is inevitable) isn’t shown, but if you’ll absolutely be tearing up during the “last hurrah” car ride Denny gives him in his race car. The film ends on the comforting idea that Enzo (in another incarnation) has come back into Denny’s life.
Maybe some of the dog narration in “The Art of Racing in the Rain” worked better in the book, which I haven’t read. The clunkiest bit of the film has to be Enzo’s bizarre rivalry with a stuffed zebra given to Zoe by her odious grandfather (Martin Donovan). At one point the zebra comes to life, mocks Enzo, then pulls out his own stuffing. Enzo’s hatred of the zebra becomes a crucial plot point during a big decision Denny makes, but there had to be a less ridiculous way to set that up.
A film that conveyed “dog thoughts” in a more elegant way was “Beginners,” in which a man (Ewan McGregor) inherits his late father’s Jack Russell. As the two get used to each other and grieve, the dog “speaks” in subtitles that are funny, poignant and more realistically dog-like.
Another demerit for how Eve’s illness (which is telegraphed from the first time she mentions she has a headache), is milked for maximum melodrama.
And if pet owners in movies would just put their dogs on a leash, well, movies would be a lot shorter and less dramatic. While the overriding lesson of the film is how much dogs enrich our lives, the more practical takeaway is don’t jog with your elderly dog off-leash, far behind you in the rain, people! (Enzo getting hit by a car is not how he dies, but it is an emotional scene. And one that makes you want to kick Denny.)
In the end, you’ll cry buckets and you’ll want to rush home to spoil your own dog (especially if you have senior dogs). But the film would have been stronger without quite so much melodrama and Deep Doggie Thoughts.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 paws