The Art of Racing in the Rain is based on a book that’s apparently reduced plenty of readers to a puddle of mush since its publication in 2008. The film adaptation aims to do the same – and succeeds, to some degree. Complicit in the drive to unleash the waterworks is a cast that includes the king of the half-crooked smile, Milo “Jack Pearson” Ventimiglia (This Is Us) and a sweet, philosophical golden retriever whose mix of comical and poignant inner thoughts are voiced by Kevin Costner. It’s a heartfelt, bittersweet tale that pet owners can easily appreciate and relate to. But it’s also sad – and at times maddening. Way more so than I expected (having not read the book), especially for a film rated PG. Maybe that stands for ‘Pet Guidance’ suggested. So be sure and ask your dog if the material seems suitable for family viewing.
The film opens with a scene designed to pull at the heartstrings and warn the viewer that tissues might come in handy over the course of the next two hours: We meet Enzo, an old dog who seems to know the end is near, and is therefore in a rather reflective mood. Enzo proceeds to narrate the story – via flashbacks – of his life with his master/best buddy Denny Swift (Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One race car driver who adopted Enzo as a pup, naming him after legendary carmaker Enzo Ferrari.
As the years pass, Enzo watches – initially with a twinge of jealousy – as Denny meets and marries the human love of his life Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and they have a daughter Zoe. Enzo is among the first to suspect that all is not well with Eve. But he’s a dog. So there’s not much he can do about it. If you’ve read the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, you surely know where this is going. Even if you haven’t, the film employs a myriad of terminal-illness clichés to brace you for what’s ahead, softened by Enzo’s unique insights into the human condition and his penchant for using racecar driving as a metaphor for life. Like racing in the rain.
It’s impossible not to root for Enzo and Denny, even as the plot goes off-track with a custody battle between Denny and Eve’s wealthy parents. It’s a subplot that I simply could not buy into given Denny’s character, charm and heart. It reminded me a bit of the custody fight in 2017’s Gifted, another shmaltzy flick featuring a good guy done wrong.
It’s also impossible not to draw parallels to the recently-released A Dog’s Journey and its predecessor A Dog’s Purpose, both of which recounted the ‘lives’ and times of a dog named Bailey as he found his way back through the years to his original owner. Perhaps we could get a crossover film where Bailey and Enzo join forces to provide comfort to their human families.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is definitely for the same crowd that sniffled through films like A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Purpose or Marley & Me. It’s about love and loss, life and death, and the special bond between pets and their humans. Racing in the Rain is the weakest of the bunch. But you’ll cry anyway. Consider it a practice run for the upcoming season of This Is Us.