Hollywood is a cyclical business. Currently, the industry is in a mini dog boom, the first since 2008’s “Marley and Me” spawned a small puppy movie cottage industry. The current trend, however, began in 2017 with “A Dog’s Purpose.” The movie was based on a book of the same name, written by W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote that many dogs are reincarnated multiple times as they search for their chosen humans. This spawned a sequel, “A Dog’s Journey,” and a few imitators, including “A Dog’s Way Home” which is also based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and came out in January.
Now, there’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Once again based on a book of the same name, this one by Garth Stein, “The Art of Racing” attempts the same gentle storytelling device as it tells a family drama through the eyes of a pup. Unfortunately, with the exception of the dog in question, there’s not much worth watching.
Get the think newsletter.
“The Art of Racing” attempts the same gentle storytelling device as it tells a family drama through the eyes of a pup. Unfortunately, with the exception of the dog in question, there’s not much worth watching.
Not that “The Art of Racing in the Rain” isn’t at least trying to be different. Unlike many of the recent movies in the genre like “The Secret Life of Pets,” there’s no significant “Homeward Bound”-type journey. The only real obstacles our pooch Enzo, voiced by Kevin Costner, faces in life include making sure he poops in the proper places. He’s not even a hard-working farm dog with fields to run in. He lives comfortably in Seattle where dog treats are served at most fine human establishments. If anything, Enzo’s biggest vice is riding around in fast cars. This is only appropriate, though, as he was named for Enzo Ferrari, and his person, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), is a wannabe race car driver.
It’s this race car angle that somewhat separates “Art of Racing” from other dog films. One gets the sense the entire thing was probably pitched as “Marley and Me” meets “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Swift and Enzo spend lots of time racing in the rain (because it’s Seattle), and musing on the proper way to handle a car at fast speeds on slick pavement. This manifests in deep-sounding ideas like anticipating the skid so you can control it, and other such faux-Buddhist thoughts that are supposed to sound like advice one can apply to all sorts of everyday problems. But if Swift believes he is anticipating any of the skids of his life, he’s kidding himself. Really, he’s just lucky to have a dog.
By seeing everything through Enzo’s perspective, the film builds a cushion between the viewers and the painful emotional trauma the characters are experiencing on screen. This artifice is supposed to make it so that audiences of all ages can enjoy the film, no matter how hard things get. Seeing things via a dog’s-eye view does make it easier to forget that Swift is a loser. He’s not a bad person or anything, just someone who’s break never comes. He’s the guy in the Bruce Springsteen songs like “The Promise,” who chases that dream all the way until the end and then discovers Thunder Road is nothing but tires rushing by in the rain. He gets lucky for a minute when he falls in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and they get married and have a kid, but even this good fortune doesn’t last long. After Eve dies of a tragic terminal illness, her parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan), decide their son-in-law is a man who will never make anything of himself and fight an ugly battle to gain custody over their grandchild.
Without the dog lens this plot would make for an extraordinarily depressing film. But that’s where Enzo and his loyalty to his master comes in. His nonjudgmental love means that Denny’s perspective seems to be the more righteous one. Any layered nuance this story might have held is drained away, in an anxious need to absolve the audience from thinking too hard about a situation where the answers aren’t as easy as one might like.
Without the dog lens this plot would make for an extraordinarily depressing film. But that’s where Enzo and his loyalty to his master comes in.
But along with draining away any subtext, the film also loses most of its personality. Ventimiglia, who effortlessly plays the hell out of a loving, emotionally limited patriarch on “This Is Us,” is rendered flat and uninteresting when seen through canine eyes. Seyfried is wasted so the movie can have a dramatic conflict. Baker and Donovan are good actors but are pushed into two-dimensional “evil in-laws” clichés. The only character who actually is worth watching is our gravelly voiced pooch.
So why do this to a film? Hollywood’s recent love of dog-centered flicks feels a little random. The next one is Disney’s “Lady & The Tramp,” which is proudly trumpeting its use of real dogs for the live-action remake over on Disney+. That will be the fifth dog movie (give or take) of 2019, a surprising number of hounds for one year on the silver screen.
And yet, this trend isn’t so surprising when you consider the cultural climate. Dogs are a lot of things, but what they typically are not is political. At a moment when the country feels divided, everyone in Hollywood is betting we can all agree that dogs are great. They are also the ultimate "family movie" signifier. One of the reasons “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” works hard to scrub itself of anything even remotely offensive is the desire to make it appealing to families of every stripe, a safe place to take the children to watch a movie about a very good dog, where the chances of sex or violence are almost nil. You don't have to worry about this movie’s appropriateness, because this story is about a dog. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t also make it interesting.