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Dog days of thunder – ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’

August 13, 2019
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Full disclosure: I love dogs. I am a bordering-on-weird dog person. I recognize this about myself and own my lack of objectivity regarding dogs and their feelings fully. That said, I am able to manage enough separation to recognize when a movie isn’t actually all that good, even if it has no problem pushing the appropriate buttons to elicit the desired emotional responses from someone like me.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” based on Garth Stein’s best-selling 2008 novel of the same name, is far from great cinema. On its face, it is an over-plotted and underdeveloped family drama with a whiff of Nicholas Sparks about it. We’re kind of on a road to nowhere, driving aimlessly and never actually getting anyplace.

But there’s a dog with an inner monologue who has thoughts and feelings and engages with the thoughts and feelings of people, so what am I supposed to do? I’m not made of stone.

Denny (Milo Ventimiglia, TV’s “This is Us”) is an aspiring racecar driver, working the lower-tier circuits in an effort to make it Formula 1. He’s a gifted driver who just hasn’t gotten his shot, despite his mentor Don’s (Gary Cole, “Blockers”) belief that Denny is as good a bad-weather driver as there is.

Denny’s best friend and companion is Enzo (Kevin Costner, TV’s “Yellowstone”), a golden retriever who has always been different from other dogs. Enzo has complex thoughts and feelings; he’s a student of the world by way of the TV and believes that if he lives this life properly, he will be reincarnated as a human (per a documentary about Mongolia he watched once).

All is well and good with these two bachelors – until Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”), a teacher with whom he rapidly and deeply falls in love.

It isn’t long before Eve is a part of their lives, much to Enzo’s chagrin. But despite the dog’s best efforts, he can’t maintain his resentment toward someone who makes Denny so obviously happy. And when their family welcomes a brand-new addition, well … Enzo’s life’s mission becomes making sure that that new addition is safe and secure at all times, no matter what.

It’s not all easy, though. While Eve supports Denny’s career utterly and totally, her parents Maxwell (Martin Donovan, “Fahrenheit 451”) and Trish (Kathy Baker, “Model Home”) are less enthused about their daughter marrying a racecar driver; Maxwell in particular is perhaps a little too pointed about the whole situation.

And when tragedy strikes their family and Denny is left with no choice but to fight for what’s right, whatever the cost, Enzo is right there by his side, offering up as much support as possible for someone without opposable thumbs and a speech-capable tongue to give.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is precisely as saccharine and cloying as it sounds. It is filled to the very brim with formulaic emotional button-pushing; every charged moment is telegraphed from a mile away. There is nothing remotely surprising that happens in this film – even the ending (which is bizarre in a number of ways) is something that everyone in the theater sees coming, despite its weirdness. The relationships all simply tick the various boxes, while the varied subplots seem shoehorned in and largely unnecessary.

And yet, I got all teary-eyed. More than once, too. That is because I am the precise target for this movie, someone who is unapologetically overemotional with regards to our canine companions. And when you give the dog in question the ability to communicate with me? Forget about it. I knew what was happening. I knew that my emotional puppet strings were being yanked and I was responding … and it didn’t matter.

The performances are fine, actually. Ventimiglia has this sort of quietly paternal energy on lockdown thanks to his run on “This is Us.” He’s got a real knack for endowing these vaguely generic family man characters with some life; he’s not wholly successful here, but he gives it a good run. Seyfried is OK, but something isn’t quite clicking. It’s not a bad performance, but there’s something missing. The rest of the ensemble – Donovan and Baker; Cole; Lily Dodsworth-Evans as Denny and Eve’s young daughter – is perfectly adequate, filling their parts of the formula as needed.

Costner is an odd choice for something like this. He has such a specific vocal quality; you never forget who this dog’s voice actually belongs to. And yet, it kind of works? The world-weariness inherent to Costner is an oddly apt fit for this thoughtful, existentially-aware pooch. Imagine Crash Davis, only as a golden retriever; that’s not it exactly, but it’s close.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is short on actual, you know, racing, but whatever. There are plenty of subplots in this film that fall out or fade away. In terms of what the film actually aspires to be – a familiar relationship drama, with all the standard beats and usual suspects – it succeeds. And again, people like me are going to leave the theater emotionally wrung out after a cathartic experience that, while unearned, was no less effective because of that.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 August 2019 15:45

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