Entertainment

Movie review: Manipulative tearjerker ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ pointlessly and endlessly chases its tail

Enzo and Denny practice for some Formula One racing. [Twentieth Century Fox]
Ed Symkus More Content Now
Posted: Aug. 5, 2019 10:20 am Updated: Aug. 5, 2019 10:21 am

I’m a dog person. I love dogs, and with the exceptions of “Old Yeller” and “Cujo” (and a host of unimaginative, sappy films), I love dog movies. Give me “Isle of Dogs,” “Best in Show,” “Homeward Bound” and, on the extreme end, “A Boy and His Dog,” and I’m wagging my tail.

But I was no happy pup watching the film adaptation of the 2008 novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Having never read the book, and not even knowing it was about a dog till I saw the poster on the way into the theater, I had no expectations.

What I got in the opening moments of it - the introduction of Enzo the dog, so old that he can’t even get up to greet his master at the door - was a hint that I was about to be bombarded by an onslaught of blatant manipulation. It only took a few minutes for the film to flash back to when that owner, Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), picked cute little Enzo out of a litter, brought him home, and told him all about his life as a garage mechanic and wannabe race driver. By that time, Enzo, (voice of Kevin Costner) had already starting narrating the story, letting us know that someday, when his life as a dog comes to an end, he intends to come back as a man. In a side remark, he also mentions he’s been fantasizing that “one day, I, too, would race.”

That initial hint of manipulation soon became a realization, one that lasted for almost two very long hours.

An early thought I had was that the dog’s constant narration was going to get in the way of the story, or at least keep breaking up the mood. “Gestures are all I have,” he says. “I can’t talk.” Later on, when Denny starts bringing him to the track, it’s, “I was in awe of the precision of the pit crew.” Still later, when emotional turmoil between family members rears its head, Enzo says, “The injustice was unbearable.”

The narration doesn’t just get in the way, it becomes unbearable. As does pretty much everything about the movie. A friend who read the book told me afterward that the film sticks very close to the source material, although a major character named Annika has been removed from the film. With nothing to compare it to, myself, what I got out of it was some competent but often overexuberant acting; a series of missed opportunities in which car racing is intended to sit in as a metaphor for life experiences (the script presents this in the form of undeveloped, casual throwaway lines); and not one believable moment of the dog grasping onto and understanding human nature by constantly watching and learning from television.

But even worse is the script’s penchant to control the viewer. OK, here’s a good spot for some tears; let’s throw in a tragic medical problem for one of the characters. Alright, now’s the right time for a hearty laugh; why don’t we make it a scatological scene where the dog knows exactly what will happen if he eats something that will mess with his digestive tract? Hold on, this would be the perfect place to turn a dullard of a character into a full-blown villain; that should get viewers’ blood boiling. Manipulative with a capital “M.”

Time flies by and events are skimmed over in “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried); they marry and have a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong); Enzo deals with constant changes in his surroundings; sickness comes and kills a main character (The dog, of course, knows something is wrong before any doctor does.); the story becomes morose; Enzo becomes stoic; it all devolves into a courtroom drama. And the rating is all wrong. The Motion Picture Association of American has given it a PG (parental guidance suggested). I would argue that the film has earned an HE (hokey ending).

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain”
Written by Mark Bomback; directed by Simon Curtis
With Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kevin Costner, Ryan Kiera Armstrong
Rated PG

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