FILM REVIEW – THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. With Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, voice of Kevin Costner, Martin Donovan, Kathy Baker. Written by Mark Bomback. Directed by Simon Curtis. Rated PG for thematic material. 109 minutes.
LeMans’ best friend
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is the sort of movie that is unlikely to garner good reviews from cynical critics but will be embraced by those viewers who look at their dogs not as pets but as members of the family. For the latter it will be a funny and touching tale of love and loyalty. For everyone else it will seem cloying and obvious. You know which you are.
The story involves Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an up-and-coming race car driver who, at the film’s start, adopts a puppy he names Enzo. The human plot is a sudsy tale involving love, parenthood, illness, and an ugly custody battle. The cast makes this much more engaging than it has any right to be, as we’ve seen variations of this more times than one can count.
The trick here is that it takes another overused plot point: presenting the story from the view point of Enzo, using veteran actor Kevin Costner at his raspiest as the voice of the dog. Enzo is devoted to Denny, finds he loves racing, and gradually accepts Eve (Amanda Seyfried), whom Denny marries. Enzo’s thoughts range from the amusing to the philosophical, as he tries to make sense of what’s going on around him.
We know from the film’s opening scenes, where we see the old dog nearing the end of his life, that the movie is going to tear at the heartstrings. However, Enzo has his own theories as to the meaning of life (which he picks up from a television documentary about Mongolia), and while the end of the movie may leave you teary, the intent is to leave you smiling as well. This is not “Old Yeller.”
Costner hits the right notes as Enzo’s voice, at times wry and other times rueful. He strikes the tone we hope our own pets – um, non-human family members – have when they engage with us. It makes what might have turned into a mawkish ending satisfying. As Denny, Ventimiglia gets to interact with the actual dog (played by at least one puppy and two adult dogs) while carrying the burden of the saccharine plot. He seems to understand that even though he’s got the leading onscreen role, this is the dog’s movie, and plays it with a light touch.
Indeed, it is the underacting by the cast (as opposed to the “chew the scenery, shout at the balconies” school of emoting) that keeps things moving. Seyfried is delightful as the love interest whose arc determines much of the second half of the film, while Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker, as Eve’s well-to-do parents, are able to quickly sketch in the complexities of their characters without playing them as the plot devices they are.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is niche filmmaking for a particular audience. The question is not whether this is a cinematic landmark. It isn’t. But it will engage those willing to speculate as to the intellectual and emotional lives of their pets and leave them feeling good, and that’s not bad.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.