Synopsis – Through his bond with his owner, aspiring Formula One race car driver Denny, golden retriever Enzo learns that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life.
My Take – There is a long history of dogs in cinema, from starring in family comedies, to sports films, to even having their own moments in horror films, nevertheless, this fury lovable canines, despite changes in trend, have always managed to cater to a section of an audience.
However, if you’ve seen any dog led films in recent history you are expected to shed a few tears, and this film is no different.
Based on the New York Times bestseller by Garth Stein, this adaption, surprisingly, has been 10 years in the making, with studio after studio going through a rotating roster of stars and directors best suited to bring the story to life, that is until Fox 2000 finally handed over the reins to director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin, Woman in Gold), and casted Kevin Costner as the voice of the lead hound.
While I hadn’t read the book that it is based on, I was not surprised to find this one to be yet another family flick made to tug at your heart strings, albeit a good one. The film is a wholesome tale about friendship, responsibility, grief, family, and real love, where the main characters choose to make decisions that are selfless and family-oriented.
Sure, the film is set in a world where every bend, every curve in the narrative is a little too smooth, and every treacly sentiment is doled out like dog treats, hereby making everything predictable and rote. However, the film clearly has its heart in the right place, even if there is not much art to it and precious little racing.
The story follows Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), a wise old golden retriever who narrates, in retrospect, part of the life led by Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One race car driver who adopted him as a puppy. It is through him Enzo gains tremendous insight into the human condition and understands that the techniques needed on the race track that can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life.
Though Denny proves a devoted owner and all-around good guy, he faces both professional and financial challenges. Yet, as far as his personal life goes, he hits the jackpot when he falls for gentle teacher Eve (Amanda Seyfried), which leads to a model marriage that eventually produces daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), rounding out the cozy household.
However, destiny has a rough road in store for the happy family, which Enzo empathizes and continues to philosophize about Mongolian tribal beliefs while engaging in a fierce battle against a zebra stuffed animal.
With films such as ‘Women in Gold’ and ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ to his name, it’s clear that director Simon Curtis has made a promising career out of sentimental narratives. While there’s nothing wrong with a cheesy film every now and again, it’s hard to get wrapped up in the emotional roller coaster when you get into reincarnation territory.
My reference is to ‘A Dog’s Journey’, a film franchise that pet lovers have already watched through wet eyes, however this film feels like a more earned tearjerker. It doesn’t deliver sobs by repeatedly killing and reincarnating dogs, and it doesn’t give its canine star the unfunny inner monologue of a 4-year-old. Instead this film depicts a loss of relationships, a relationship with loss itself, and the resiliency a person can show as a result.
For example here, Denny and Enzo have a seemingly symbiotic relationship where they teach each other, softening the rougher edges of each one’s personality. Denny is a cool customer on and off the track and sometimes needs a nudge toward making the moves necessary to succeed; Enzo moves past his desire to be reincarnated as a man to fully appreciate his place in the Swift family, recognizing his purpose in caring for the humans he loves.
Together, they tackle the grief of losing people they care about and the courage to boldly live their lives in community. And it is through Enzo’s wise words that this film wrecks you, and I’m not talking a single tear, I mean full-on sobbing. In the film, Denny takes hit after hit, but through it all, he continues to press the gas and move forward.
In fact, the film is probably tear jerking for too many scenes in a row, and there’s a portion in the middle where you just need something positive to happen, and right as you’re ready to give up on Denny, Enzo, and the family the film does lighten up, and it’s as much a relief as it is plot development. This tone is what makes the end so powerful, it’s just a difficult watch at times.
The film also improves in the second half, when it becomes centered on the custody battle, which provides enough real-world drama for the emotions to feel authentic. Enzo takes a step back in this latter half too, and the film becomes a two-hander with Denny, in a Kramer v. Kramer-esque narrative turn. Between your melodramatic family drama narrative, cute dogs, and Formula One narrative to appeal to dads and car racing enthusiasts in the audience, the film is broad enough to appeal to all members of the family.
However, with the abundance of heartstring-tugging dog films taking over theaters now, the film does little to set itself apart. Enzo’s esoteric musings are entertaining to an extent, this is a film that has a raspy-voiced Costner describe the “brutal burlesque” of a zebra-centric hallucination, and there are some fun, fantastical flourishes that inject some energy into the sentimental slog. But the film is so maddeningly predictable in its melodramatic curve balls that it starts to feel insulting.
But the most shocking aspect happens to be the absence of racing sequences. There are perhaps two or three racing scenes in total, and none of them play much of a part in the plot. Rather, the “racing in the rain” referred to in the title is the journey of life itself and overcoming the obstacles that one faces along the way. It’s cheesy, to be sure, but director Curtis gets the message across.
Honestly, I thought listening to Kevin Costner drone on for a couple hours as a dog’s inner monologue would be tedious, but his soulful, wise voice happened to be the perfect counterpoint to this smiley, the tail-wagging pup we see on the big screen, and who doesn’t like watching a dog mess around for a few hours?
Milo Ventimiglia, who has had years of experience with this kind of sentimental melodrama on This is Us, makes a perfect show of his brand of floppy-haired masculinity. Amanda Seyfried also works well to make her seemingly bland character quite likable.
Young actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays her daughter well. In supporting roles, Martin Donovan, Kathy Baker and Gary Cole are also alright. On the whole, ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ is a sweet and emotional film filled with enough moments to appeal to dog lovers.
Directed – Simon Curtis
Rated – PG
Run Time – 109 minutes