‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ – Cynicism Be Damned!

The Art of Racing in the Rain movie poster

Okay, I get why people in general are being resistant to and are cynical about this particular movie. A story told from a dog’s point of view? Even I had trepidations as I entered the theater to check this inescapably sentimental feature which looks to have many visuals of an adorable dog or two. Was this dog going to have a “Mr. Ed” relationship with his owner? How many scenes would we get of the dog sniffing another dog’s butt? Trust me, I have been to dog parks and I have seen them do this endlessly. And considering how this dog’s owner is a race car driver, will the dog be able to advise him of how to keep sliding out of control on the track even if it isn’t raining? Indeed, it says a lot about a race car driver who can drive in the rain without skidding or getting into an accident, and only so many can pull this off.

Well, it should be noted how Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” upon which this movie is based, brought about a similar reaction as Stein’s literary agent laughed at its concept from the get go. As a result, Stein fired him and had the last laugh as the novel spent over 150 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Now it has finally been turned into a motion picture, and I have to admit I was truly taken in by it. While it breaks no new ground, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” moved me in a way I did not expect, and it is not at all an exercise in emotional manipulation or filled with an endless supply of cringe-inducing moments.

We meet Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car driver, as he stops by a farm to see the puppies on display. One of them is quick to capture his attention, and we can see how quickly the two form a bond which we know will never be broken. It’s a sweet moment as even the most jaded viewer has to admit how cute puppies are, and no Sarah McLachlan song is utilized at any time to sell us on this connection (for the record, I love Sarah McLachlan).

Denny comes to name his new dog Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, the Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur who made the kind of car I keep asking my parents for at Christmas time. Enzo completes the bond between him and Denny by taking a piss on his apartment floor, and this is after Denny hurriedly takes him outside to pee on the grass. Still, like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf,” he had to mark his territory before being properly potty trained.

Throughout “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” we are privy to Enzo’s inner thoughts as he spends his days watching races on television with Denny, and he even goes with him to races to where he realizes how racing serves as a metaphor for life. Moreover, Enzo becomes infinitely keen on being reincarnated as human in the next life after watching a documentary about a particular Mongolian legend. Can he make this happen? Does the answer really matter?

The filmmakers prove to be very knowledgeable about dogs, and this made the movie especially interesting to me. A dog’s sense of smell really comes to the forefront as Enzo eventually realizes a certain character is very ill, and it breaks the heart to see the concern on his face which cannot be verbalized to this person. It was at this point I wished dogs could talk because this particular character could have gotten medical attention a heck of a lot sooner. Imagine what Enzo would say, “Hey buddy! You’re sick! See a doctor now or I’ll chase you up a tree!”

But while the characters cannot hear Enzo’s inner thoughts, we can thanks to Kevin Costner. Upon learning he would be voicing Enzo, I was concerned Costner would give Enzo’s narration the same monotone delivery he gave John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” and that movie is a bona fide classic. However, he captures Enzo’s wise nature which is not easily corrupted by money, greed or an inescapable addiction to cellphones, and not once does he overplay a single moment which is much appreciated. Even as Enzo groans about Eve (the ever so radiant Amanda Seyfried) coming into Denny’s life as a certain line of dialogue from “Killing Zoe” flashed through my mind (“never let a woman come between two men”), Costner shows how Enzo evolves through each new person who comes into his life and of the challenges thrown in his way.

Directing “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is Simon Curtis, the filmmaker who first introduced us to Daniel Radcliffe in his version of “David Copperfield,” and who also directed one of the most underappreciated movies of 2017 with “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” This could have been an emotionally overwrought cinematic experience, but Curtis keeps things grounded in a certain reality we can all relate to, and he is very careful to not milk our emotions too much throughout. Just when I thought things would start getting overly sentimental, Curtis succeeds in keeping everything in check to where any cynical thoughts we had about this movie were completely done away with.

I should also add I saw this movie with my parents who have in fact read Stein’s novel, and they both confirmed Mark Bomback’s screenplay is very faithful to the source material. Yes, there are predictable moments such as when a character dies prematurely or when the grandparents (played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) sue Denny for custody of his and Eve’s daughter, Zoe (the delightful Ryan Kiera Armstrong), believing Denny’s career will leave him little time to be at home. My parents, however, reminded me how people with money often do this in life more often than I realize, so this is clearly not so shallow plot device to get us all miffed at the grandparents.

And yes, this movie starts out with the inevitable, with Enzo in his last days lying on the floor and waiting for Denny to come home. Curtis eventually circles back to this moment as we are reminded of the unbreakable bond between humans and dogs, and it leads to a lovely moment where Enzo gets one last spin in a classic car. Few movies in 2019 have gotten me choked up, but this one did.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is not a masterpiece of cinema, but it does its job and gives us an emotionally fulfilling time at the movies. Its take on dogs is very thoughtful, and if you were never keen on owning an animal before, this movie may change your mind. It’s a shame this project has proven to be a hard sell for audiences as its storyline seems too ridiculous on paper to be taken seriously. I cannot really blame people for having a cynical attitude to this material as I certainly did, but what results is a very good movie which will check your cynicism at the door if you give it a chance. And if you never thought about owning a dog before, seeing this movie just might change your mind.

As for myself, I am in no hurry to own any pets as stuffed animals, especially Eeyores, are more than enough for me. And to Curtis’ and Bomback’s credit, there is a scene where Denny has to take Enzo to the vet, and we are reminded of just how much caring for a pet can cost. The love of a pet can be a great thing, but it can also be seriously expensive. Still, there is no doubt in mind we can get more love from a dog than Chevy Chase did in “Funny Farm.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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