“THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN” — 2 stars — Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, voice of Kevin Costner; PG (thematic material); in general release; running time: 109 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — There seems to be a whole sub-genre of live-action, talking dog films these days, and they run the spectrum from the good (“A Dog’s Journey”) to the bad (“A Dog’s Way Home”) to the ugly (“Show Dogs”).
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” has its moments, but it has a few too many issues to stick it in the “good” category. Of all the films mentioned, “Racing in the Rain” is also the one where the dog feels least essential to the plot.
Based on the novel by Garth Stein and directed by Simon Curtis, “Racing in the Rain” hammers separate narratives together into what amounts to a film version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for dog lovers and car guys. Set in the Pacific Northwest, the story is framed around the life of Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), a golden retriever who believes that when he dies, he will be reincarnated as a human. We meet him at the end of his life, and “Racing in the Rain” is largely told in flashback from there.
When we go back and see Enzo as a puppy, we also meet Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), Enzo’s owner. Denny’s dream is to drive for Formula One in Europe, and so he’s dividing his time between some minor league driving under a man named Don Kitch (Gary Cole) and working as a driving instructor for other aspiring racers.
For a time, Denny and Enzo enjoy what seems to be a perfect existence — Enzo even enjoys watching Denny’s race videos over and over again as his owner tries to figure out how to improve on his performance. But all that changes when Denny meets a young ESL teacher named Eve (Amanda Seyfried).
Denny and Eve are a perfect match, and despite Enzo’s hesitations, the two are soon married and getting ready for their first child. From here, “Racing in the Rain” follows Denny’s pursuits on the track and in the home, all while Enzo watches and narrates (frequently with a musing philosophical tone). Eve’s parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) are less than supportive of their son-in-law’s racing career, and tensions just get worse when Eve gets cancer.
Taken on its own, the family drama element of the film has some merit, even if the writing could use some work (at one key point, the plot feels rushed for no legitimate reason, and in another key scene, the humor and drama clash awkwardly). But after a time, you start to wonder why “Racing in the Rain” really needs the dog narrator at all. Enzo is a perfectly good member of the family, but his narration feels like a crutch for the story, and too often Costner’s pseudo-philosophical growl feels like a mismatch for the material.
It’s very possible this all worked a lot better in the book. On screen, it struggles to gel, and in spite of all the points it scores with cute doggy moments, even dog lovers might find the finale a bit strange.
The good news for dog lovers is that there seem to be plenty of other movie options on the table. Unfortunately, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” feels more like scraps than a juicy steak
Rating explained: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is rated PG for some adult themes and vulgar humor.