'The Art of Racing in the Rain': Film Review

Two-thirds tiresome dog story, one-third efficient tearjerker.

Kevin Costner is the voice of the dog-narrator and Milo Ventimiglia is his human in Simon Curtis’ drama about life, death, family and race cars.

Endless expository voiceover by a dog is just as tiresome as wall-to-wall narration by a human, even when that dog has the comforting, raspy voice of Kevin Costner. That’s the lesson of Simon Curtis’ weepy drama. Shaped by a near-constant monologue from a golden retriever named Enzo, The Art of Racing in the Rain is watchable but flat, with only occasional flashes of wit and feeling. 

The dog’s owner, Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), an ambitious race car driver, buys him as a pup and names him after racing legend Enzo Ferrari. Enzo becomes the constant observer of his owner’s life as Denny marries, pursues his career and faces family tragedy. 

The dog-thinking-out-loud concept is not the big problem. What the dog says is. His observations are meant to be humorously philosophical, and they have their moments. Enzo watches a documentary about Mongolia and learns that dogs can be reincarnated as humans. He suddenly has a goal. But usually his language is grandiose and dull, such as, “I spent a sleepless night contemplating what Denny had just said.” Contemplating. If you’re going to make a ruminating dog your main character, at least give him clever things to say.

Some of Enzo’s thoughts come directly from the source, Garth Stein’s best-selling novel. But that literary device becomes the dreaded screen convention of narrating what we can see before our eyes.

We’re well into the film before Enzo shuts up for a minute or two, and it’s a relief to hear humans talk to each other, however briefly. Denny is an easy fit for Ventimiglia, who channels his role as Jack on NBC's This Is Us, the loving family man as everyday hero. Amanda Seyfried’s gentle performance makes Eve, his endlessly supportive and patient wife, more convincing than the script deserves.

Curtis is known for more sophisticated dramas, including My Week With Marilyn and The Woman in Gold. He has never been the most stylish or innovative director, but he knows what he’s doing, and he accepts his mission here, which is evidently not to get fancy and mess up the commercial property. It’s too bad that he and the screenwriter, Mark Bomback, didn’t let loose more, because there are touches hinting at what a better, more imaginative version might have been. When Denny’s problems land him in court, Enzo is left behind to watch television, and envisions an episode of Law & Order with Denny and the people in his life subbed in for the usual characters. The brief comic sidelight works.

Ross Emery’s cinematography sometimes gives us a dog’s-eye-view looking up, but thankfully that angle is not overused. Puppy Enzo is adorable, old-dog Enzo is quite rightly sad-looking, and the well-trained dog in the middle is just fine. But the film does not rely on the animals’ soulful looks into the camera, as so many dog movies do. Costner does the heavy lifting, and puts a wry spin on whatever lines he can. There’s no attempt to make the brief racing scenes spectacular, but then racing is only a plot device here, and sometimes a cringe-worthy metaphor for life.  

When Eve starts gulping down aspirin for a persistent headache we can guess what’s ahead, but Enzo portentously adds that he smells decay coming from her. The plot takes several turns into melodrama, but it’s effectively done melodrama, with Kathy Baker as Eve’s mother and Martin Donovan as her villainous father. That turn comes too late, though. The Art of Racing in the Rain offers the dog’s version of events, a strategy that is never as cute or as wise as it’s meant to be.

Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Original Film, Shifting Gears Productions
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Kevin Costner (voice)
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Patrick Dempsey, Tania Landau
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Brent Thomas
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme
Editor: Adam Recht
Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Volker Bertelmann

Rated PG, 109 minutes