The Art of Racing in the Rain

Dog movies always seem to be a mixed bag. I remember there was a time when the only bad movie Tom Hanks made was a buddy cop picture called Turner & Hooch, where his partner was a dog.

For every Marley & Me that people enjoyed, there’s a A Dog’s Purpose, where we watch a variety of dogs die in different ways.

I was worried about this movie because the dog Enzo is voiced by Kevin Costner. His folksy vibe would’ve worked better decades ago. Now there’s something rough and gravelly about his voice, but you get used to it. And when the dog gets older, it fits perfectly.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback adapted Garth Stein’s hit novel, and it works in the first half. It was refreshing that, instead of a dopey dog that is excited by anything, this dog always feels like everything puts him out. Even when he’s a puppy that is picked out by his new owner, he’s cynical about the breeders and everything else he witnesses. 

Enzo is often philosophizing on his observations, and it combines nicely with cute dog mentality and joys. And just as E.T., and the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy (Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum), Enzo learns a lot about the world from watching TV. When his owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia from This is Us), is watching car races, Enzo learns a lot and appreciates them, too. Heck, dogs do run after cars, so…it makes sense. Although after this movie, I don’t want to hear another racing metaphor again.

And just as Costner’s voice was tough to take at first, I never warmed up to Ventimiglia. His performance was fine, but his voice gave off this tough guy vibe that wasn’t quite working for me. Other times, it sounded like Keanu Reeves’ dopey characters in films like Bill & Ted or Parenthood (where Reeves wanted to also race cars).

The film does what so many do these days that annoys me — it starts at the end. That means we see Enzo on the floor in a puddle of pee, on his last legs. Since there’s only Denny there to help him, we’re curious as to what happens when the story goes back to show him meeting his girlfriend Eve (Amanda Seyfried).

The way Enzo is bothered by this new person vying for Denny’s affections, is a lot of fun. Even when she calls the dog over to her, there’s a brief pause before he reluctantly saunters over. You crack up because we know the dog isn’t all that happy, and it shows by his walk.

When a baby is brought into the fold, well…on TV shows that’s what’s called a “jumping the shark” moment. Yet I loved all the interactions with the dog and toddler in this.

Where the movie “jumped the shark” for me, was the second half. It started with the dog saying he “smelled an odor of rot coming out of her ears” in regards to a character we realize has cancer. And it seemed from that point forward, everything about this movie got frustrating. The things the dog was thinking. The things characters did, mostly in-laws that were so over-the-top horrible, that they didn’t work. And some of those moments didn’t work because legally, they got their facts wrong on how things would happen [I can’t give details without spoilers].

Then there are predictable moments that are frustrating. One of those involves an angry Denny jogging, and we see the dog is off leash with lots of traffic. Is he really that stupid?

Surprisingly, a lot of the humor worked. When we hear the dog looking at a creepy zebra stuffed animal, and hearing Costner say, “Something about that zebra put me ill at ease.”

Even funnier when you see what becomes of that thing. 

I loved the line about a guy being in “The third best Soundgarden tribute band.”

And on the subject of Costner, there should’ve been a scene throwing a baseball to the dog, with us hearing him say, “I love nothing more than baseball…[insert a line of his monologue from Bull Durham here].” Although, Enzo really loves nothing more than racing, and it’s so adorable watching him as a pup learn to drive, with Denny using his paws as gear shifts on the couch.

It was cool to hear a couple George Harrison tunes in the beginning, but I was hoping for more race car songs. They could’ve dropped the C.S.N. and maybe Primus doing “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” or Rush’s “Red Barchetta.” The list is endless.

The second half of the movie felt like a bunch of half formed ideas, which is a bummer, after such a strong start.

The whole thing was maudlin and manipulative, but some of the sad moments worked.

Bring your Kleenex.

2 stars out of 5.

Side Note: DO NOT get the title confused with The Art of Self Defense. The audiences that want a cute dog movie, are probably the exact opposite of the ones that want to watch a Fight Club style flick.

 

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