The Art of Racing in the Rain was directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Mark Bomback, and is based on the Gareth Stein novel of the same name. It stars Milo Ventimiglia (This Is Us) as Denny Swift, an expert racecar driver who dreams of one day being signed to a Formula 1 team, but hasn’t had the chance to make his mark on racing quite yet. One day, as Denny is returning home from a race, he sees a sign for puppies on the side of the road, and decides to investigate. After falling in love with a puppy which he then names Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), Denny decides to adopt him and raise him as his own. Enzo’s life is full of excitement, but also full a good many challenges, and the film chronicles his life alongside Denny as he struggles with his racing career, his wife (Amanda Seyfried) and eventual child, and life’s all-too-often unfair and familiar tragedies that strike the best of us at the worst of times. The film also stars Martin Donovan, Kathy Baker, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong.
Dog movies are a dime-a-dozen, so if you’re going to make one, it better be pretty damn good; unfortunately, most of them aren’t and even the most astute of dog flicks can fall prey to relying on the age-old trick of killing off its animal character in order to extract some quick, teary emotions from the audience (think Marley & Me, another dog movie by the same studio that put out Art of Racing that’s nowhere near as good as everyone seems to think it is). Often, these movies are accompanied by some sort of unnecessary narration that lacks nuance in the writing and can often feel a bit jarring if the main dog is any older than a standard puppy, given the child-like nature of a creature that young, as well as their boundless charm and curiosity. But while there are exceptions to this seemingly cursed genre of film (this year’s A Dog’s Purpose had surprisingly way more heart than I was expecting, as well as a poignant theme regarding unfair discrimination against pit bulls), The Art of Racing in the Rain is not one of those exceptions.
Of course, the plot of the film would be hampered by narration detailing in sometimes overdramatic fashion what we’re already seeing happen on screen, but that’s assuming the movie has a main plot at all. I think it was supposed to, but after a while, it becomes clear that what was likely supposed to be the main thrust of the film (a friendship between a racer and his dog) is immediately set on the back-burner once the movie realizes that Ventimiglia was in This Is Us and that show gets people emotional, so they could easily ring up the dial on all that emotion here as well, and people would just accept it because emotion = good filmmaking. In fact, the opening paragraph of this review ended up being more difficult to write because the movie lacks a main plot thread to follow. It just jumps around from subplot to subplot, forgetting not only that Denny is a racecar driver, but that the character should be doing more than just sitting on the couch watching races and then going to drive in races, and then dealing with things that have absolutely zero relevance to the main thrust of the story, including a really bizarre custody subplot centered around Denny’s daughter that comes out of basically nowhere.
What racing scenes the film does have are genuinely thrilling when they’re in the mix of things, but this only happens once or twice during the course of the movie; the rest of the time, Ventimiglia simply disappears from the movie for a good 10-15 minutes until Enzo is done being forced to interact with the other characters so that we remember there are other characters, most of whom are just likeable extras who never evolve beyond “Denny’s friends,” and all have the same exact personality…except, of course, the ones the most screen time is given to, who are just the most thoroughly unlikable people imaginable, and really only exist to give Denny a temporary “antagonist” without any nuance or character depth so the custody subplot can happen later on. That’s not to say the performance in the movie aren’t good at all; in fact, most of them are pretty solid and get the job done considering how little this movie requires of them, but the writing of the characters is so archetypal and broad that it only shines a light on how uninteresting the filmmaking itself is, since that’s what we’re left with after realizing we won’t be getting much more than those archetypes from Bomback’s screenplay.
It doesn’t help either that the movie’s biggest weakness is also the one thing the entire movie hinges on in order to engage and audience: Kevin Costner’s narration. It’s not so much that Kevin Costner is bad at voicing a dog as that the writing of the narration sounds more like Costner just reading sections of the titular novel out loud into a microphone than it does Enzo himself actually having his own thoughts or developing those thoughts into anything more than large chunks of exposition, even as we’re being told what’s happening visually by what’s on screen at the same time. The movie doesn’t seem to want to trust that its audience will understand what’s going on by just showing us, so it decides to have the dog tell us instead, which is like breaking the number one rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell. This also apparent in the way the subplots manifest, seeming to have no purpose but to make the audience cry so they think they just watched a great movie, without doing what great movies do to earn the audience’s admiration. But yeah, I also think Kevin Costner just might not be very good at voicing dogs (the puppy scenes are particularly jarring, considering the voice of the puppy is a middle-aged man).
I know it sounds like I really hated this movie as I was watching it, given how many negative elements I’ve thus far discussed, but I don’t think it’s so much that I hated it as that I just didn’t like it, and couldn’t find any reason to defend it against would-be naysayers besides the fact that some of the racing scenes (as rare as they are) were actually done really well. Maybe if the film had focused more on the “racing” and the “rain” in its title, it really could have been something special. Those sequences were the best parts of the movie, and it’s a shame that we don’t even get to see 80% of them because Denny just fast travels off-screen for long periods of time. As it is, the title itself is just a vague metaphor that doesn’t hold much weight or relevance to the movie overall, except as a catalyst to get that custody subplot to mean something so it won’t be entirely pointless for the main character to go through (spoiler: it still ends up feeling pointless).
In the end, The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t so much a disappointing movie in its own right as it is a bad movie that doesn’t really try to be a good one, instead settling on cheap, manufactured-feeling emotional moments to wring tears out of the audience and calling it a day. There are a few good elements to it that keep it afloat, if only barely, but they’re not enough to make it swim (or race) through the rain of its own inadequacy. Perhaps, instead of just assuming the movie wouldn’t need to earn its quality, they should have learned the art of filmmaking instead, then started their engines on this needlessly slightly-below-average project.
I’m giving “The Art of Racing in the Rain” a 4.4/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.