Author Garth Stein fired a literary agent who rejected his idea of creating an entire novel from the perspective of a dog. After said novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, spent 156 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list following its 2008 debut, Stein had the last laugh. Now the novel is a movie, with the same title and the same perspective. No doubt there will be cynical moviegoers who’ll side with Stein’s agent about talking-pooch stories. But those in thrall to all things canine will surely cut some slack to the big-screen version of The Art of Racing in the Rain, with Kevin Costner, of all gruff megastars, doing the voice of a dog who longs to be human. Sure, it’s a tearjerker — often shamelessly so — but that probably won’t hurt the box-office. Marley and Me, another doggie weepie adapted from a bestseller, grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. A Dog’s Purpose also hit the jackpot, along with the likes of Benji, Beethoven, The Lady and the Tramp, Old Yeller and Isle of Dogs.
Audiences for The Art of Racing in the Rain know who they are — animal-loving suckers whose lips tremble at the thought of a golden retriever acting human. The minute that Seattle-based, aspiring Formula One driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) locks eyes on the pup he adopts and names Enzo (after Italian auto tycoon Enzo Ferrari), he’s a goner. It’s Enzo who narrates the film in a voice only the audience can hear. You’ll be pleased to know that Costner rarely lays on the sentiment too thick.
The movie’s life lessons can be hard to take. Luckily, Ventimiglia — on a deserved third Emmy nomination for playing the doomed father Jack Pearson on This Is Us — brings sincerity and welcome humor to Denny, as Enzo gets caught up in plot complications laid on by screenwriter Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Outlaw King). It helps that director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin) is adept at dodging the worst clichés, as Enzo faces competition for Denny’s love from Eve (the excellent Amanda Seyfried), the woman he marries, and their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). When illness enters the picture (doesn’t it always?), Denny must fight for his rights in court against Eve’s singularly annoying parents, played by Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker.
When the movie stalls, it’s Enzo to the rescue. Since the film covers a decade in the lives of its characters, two dogs take turns playing Enzo, at age 2 and 9. They’re both picks of the litters. And Ventimiglia contributes an emotional honesty that serves him well even when the plot sinks into marshmallow. Enzo teaches himself about the world by taking careful notice of Denny at the track, sitting beside him at home watching videos of important races, and taking in a TV documentary about Mongolia, where Enzo dreams of spending his final days before transitioning into a human. Enzo speaks his heart only to us about wishing Denny, just once, would drive him around the track, the wind blowing through his fur. Through observing Denny, Enzo knows that racing can teach him about battling adversity and practicing patience in case you’re driving, er, in the rain. Corny? Yes. But still endearing. As for the hound-haters who’d prefer to stream Stephen King’s Cujo, about a rabid St. Bernard who’d rip Enzo’s heart out, you’re not listening to this movie’s message about racing against your prejudices. How do you live with yourselves?