Films involving our closest four-legged furry friends, ones we bear the greatest affinity to, they’re obviously nothing new. Dog films to be based on a novel, we’ve already had a pair in 2019 that have managed to go well overshadowed against much bigger box office draws. There’s a third now joining those ranks, and it may be welcome company after the mixed grab bag of Secret Life of Pets 2. The secret weapon? It’s most definitely Kevin Costner, whose smooth voice grazes over every ounce of predictable script paper with effortless ease in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Still saccharine, stereotypical as its nearest comparison, and yet wonderfully compelling because of the multi-talented actor/musician/underappreciated baseball star serving as a calm, composed voice, speaking on behalf of a wise, soulful golden retriever.
Using Seattle as its backdrop (realistically it’s 90% Vancouver, BC), Garth Stein’s bestselling novel will hit home for many, and those formulaic movie bingo cards for others. Life is nothing short of oddly melancholy and placid for the appropriately named Enzo (Costner), loyal pet to amateur F1 car racer Denny Swift (This is Us star Milo Ventimiglia). His human has mild aspirations to go professional, yet time always seems to slow his forward momentum. That and, just as their bond as a duo grows, Denny’s meant-to-be sweetheart Eve (Amanda Seyfried). Add a majorly deterring distraction through his potential in-laws (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker) who find every reason to separate true love, odd of a match as it builds into. And of course, Enzo’s in the backseat making merely wistful observations, interjecting with the racer’s lingo he’d pick up here and there in televised tidbits.
It’s possible the original manuscript handled such wild shifts in tone better than what director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin) could roll with. It’s never consistent, nor is it always convincing. As much as we as moviegoers wish to fight it, its approach to a simple formula of joint heartbreak and syrupy lovey-dovey goodness remains at the usual standard. That’s perhaps a hidden hallmark for screenwriter Mark Bomback, whose best work includes the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, as well as uncredited script doctor work on Fifty Shades of Grey and 2017’s The Mummy. Considering such lofty credits, this may be a minor step backwards, and yet it may not be worth complaining, knowing it’s no different from many of the recent serious canine redemption stories to hit screens (re Marley and Me, A Dog’s Purpose, and the Aussie equivalent Red Dog, a recent personal favorite). If you’ve seen either of those three but haven’t read the book ahead of time on this film, something I feel could’ve helped in my case, it won’t be all that different.
Such a shoddy script does leave a bad ire on its performers; Ventimiglia is perhaps the biggest victim. His motivation is sorely lacking, empathy a struggle to invoke properly. As much as he loves Enzo, and despite his choice of an exciting career, Denny is rather disinteresting to watch on screen, so is Milo, who appears at times bored, other times a little frustrated behind his dramatic passion. Baker and Donovan, both wonderful character actors, are otherwise inessential to the plot, apart from inflating the conflict scale. In-laws from hell, they really aren’t, try as they will; and they do try much too hard at every single turn.
Seyfried is a radiant sight, even when facing a rather unsurprisingly uncertainty, one I won’t go into detail here; those who’ve read the book will likely know what I’m referring to. She’s the right person to help bolster Ventimiglia’s minimal enthusiasm. And yet, their chemistry is also a tad strained, disparate, cold, barely existent. I was rather lost on why they could support each other if he’s away from home too often with his race gigs. And that eventually manifests into a pair of moments where Enzo’s will would be challenged, and that may jangle the nerves of some dog owners who’ll likely see the film opening weekend. Rest assured, he is not physically harmed once.
His otherwise predictable spirit remains unfazed; leave it to Costner who helps aid the film through its charted driving course and toward the finish line, albeit a little skewed away from what would’ve been an optimal trajectory. That familiar voice, fresh off a laidback turn in Netflix’s overlooked western The Highwayman, easily makes, if not saves the film, as it did for me. His narration style may, too uncannily, mirror what many will hear in the audiobook version. But I could let that slide, accepting Kevin’s cool-as-a-cucumber charm from start to finish, to where I could easily forgive where Curtis and Bomback seem to slip on their attempts to not fall into the trap of standard dog movie formulaic nonsense.
It is a mild shame, therefore, just how adherently, and literally, by-the-book The Art of Racing in the Rain becomes at its foregone conclusion. And yet, simultaneously, it’s a solid paw’s step forward towards the case of future comfort-food canine-friendly literary adaptations, without going to the lengths of making an unofficial universe out of it. It’s nothing overly distinct, but it still moves in the right direction, aiming to be a little different from its comparable partial siblings in the subgenre. And Kevin Costner, bless his heart, he’s the thing that makes the film worth one’s price of admission. Take him out of the equation, and its faults are just tough to work through. There’s just a folksy attitude he invokes that suits Enzo’s story arc, and helps drive its thematic plight home, the same way one would be glued to their seat if he were to, say, read pages from a dryly written dictionary. That alone was enough to raise that smile on my face by the final frame, confident most pet owners may feel the same way, despite its tendency to not fire on all of its fancy cylinders, and not quite reach top driving speed until its cookie-cutter ending. (C-)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is in most area theaters now, rated PG for thematic material; 109 minutes.