The Art of Racing in the Rain's main conceit wields mixed returns, resulting in a family dramedy that's whimsical and manipulative in equal measure.
Adapted from Garth Stein's best-selling novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain naturally invites comparisons to Marley & Me; its poster even boasts that it hales "from the studio" behind that very book-turned film. But where the latter is a memoir that explores how a trouble-making dog becomes the grounding force for a family as life chucks one unexpected curveball after another their way, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a fictional narrative about the trials and tribulations of a professional race car driver, as seen (in the movie, sometimes literally) from the perspective of their unique pup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an approach that only partly works when translated to the big screen. The Art of Racing in the Rain's main conceit wields mixed returns, resulting in a family dramedy that's whimsical and manipulative in equal measure.
The Art of Racing in the Rain plays out from the point of view of Enzo (whose inner monologue is brought to life via voiceover by Kevin Costner), a Golden Retriever who is purchased as a puppy by Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car instructor and driver with dreams of making it big as a racer. Enzo, however, is not like other dogs and is strongly attuned to the lessons he picks up about not only racing, but life in general from his owner and experiences. Complications eventually ensue when Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried), a teacher whom he falls in love with and marries soon after, in spite of Enzo's wariness towards her. In time, though, the latter comes to appreciate just how fragile life really is, and the ways that everyday existence is just like being on the racetrack.
Written for the screen by Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, War for the Planet of the Apes), The Art of Racing in the Rain carries over the broader narrative strokes of Stein's source material - though, thankfully, it abandons the novel's most problematic subplot (one that involves a teenaged girl named Annika) in favor of a melodramatic, but otherwise fitting substitute. Problem is, where the original book takes the time to fill out the smaller, but still important details of Denny and Eve's lives in-between the life-changing events, the movie focuses more on just the "big" moments and comes off feeling all the more contrived for it. Meanwhile, Enzo's narration can be hit or miss when it comes showing what their story is like when filtered through his eyes and voice; it sometimes adds a welcome touch of humor or sadness, while at other times it comes off as merely clunky and awkward. In fairness, though, it's a tricky plot device and might be one that's just better fit for the printed page.
Indeed, The Art of Racing in the Rain has a bad habit of violating that old show-don't-tell rule of cinema and, as a result, all too often feels like a book that's been turned into a movie. That's not to take anything away from the work by Ventimiglia and Seyfried, of course; the pair help to elevate the soapy proceedings here and infuse Denny and Eve with greater depth (even if, at the end of the day, the latter functions more as a plot device than a person). The film's supporting cast is equally sturdy in their parts, with Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker doing their best to bring some additional nuance to Eve's wealthy, disapproving father Maxwell and kind, subservient mother Trish. All the same, "The Twins" (ask Enzo about that one) primarily serve as the antagonists in a greater story thread that only sorta earns its attempt at a heartstrings-tugging payoff.
There's a similar sense of artificiality to the movie's aesthetics. Director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin) and his DP Ross Emery (Woman in Gold) shoot The Art of Racing in the Rain in a squeaky-clean fashion and maintain an equally strict family-friendly tone throughout the story, even as its deals with some heavy adult issues and dilemmas. Unfortunately, this approach robs the film of much of its potential flavor, resulting in car racing sequences (yes, both in and out of the rain) that aren't all that enthralling and imagined scenarios - where Enzo is either dreaming about being reincarnated as a human or, in one instance, hallucinating - that come off feeling a bit flat and uninventive in their staging. So, though it's a perfectly handsome adaptation otherwise, the story's fanciful moments especially might've benefitted from some bolder filmmaking choices.
When all is said and done, The Art of Racing in the Rain is simply another case of a much-celebrated book that makes for a just-okay film. Where there are instances where the movie matches the original novel's peculiar sense of poetry, other elements really don't resonate the way they do in literary form. Understandably, however, some viewers will find the film adaptation to be a highly effective tear-jerker, whereas others might be better off sticking with the version they envisioned in their mind while reading the novel (or just reading the novel to begin with). Still, in a year that has already seen a small handful of philosophical, if mawkish, tales about charming doggos hit the big screen, this might be the best of the lot.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 107 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material.
- The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019) release date: Aug 09, 2019