There’s no easier way to tug on a movie audience’s heartstrings than to present them with a dying dog. That’s a lesson that author W. Bruce Cameron has learned very well, with the box-office success of adaptations of his novels A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Way Home and A Dog’s Journey, and the rest of Hollywood has clearly been paying attention. The Art of Racing in the Rain is based on another best-selling dog novel, this one by Garth Stein from 2008, and the film version has a lot in common with the Cameron-based dog movies, most notably the near-constant narration from the main dog himself.
Here, that’s Enzo, voiced by Kevin Costner at his world-weariest, even when Enzo is a puppy, newly adopted by small-time race-car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia). Enzo is more self-aware than the energetic, somewhat oblivious dogs in the Cameron films, absorbing information about the human world from his surroundings (and from watching TV). He’s a dog with a sort of existential longing, yearning to be human himself and race cars like his human owner. He frequently bemoans his inability to talk or pick up objects with his paws, and he makes wise observations that are entirely incongruous with the typically hyperactive dog seen onscreen. He also pretty much never shuts up, narrating nearly every moment of the movie and injecting his dog-isms into every serious scene between the human characters.
There are a lot of those moments, too, since Racing in the Rain isn’t content with just manipulating the audience’s sympathy for suffering animals. Denny meets and falls in love with beatific teacher Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and the movie goes to Nicholas Sparks levels of romantic tragedy, lurching from marriage to childbirth to terminal illness to a courtroom custody battle. Eve in particular is a one-dimensional prop who gets less character development than Enzo, and Seyfried has nothing to do other than smile and suffer with equal beauty and grace. The relationship between Denny and his daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is just as flimsy, and Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan provide contrived plot obstacles as Eve’s judgmental parents.
Ventimiglia has plenty of experience with melodramatic hokum from his years on NBC’s cry-factory This Is Us, and Racing in the Rain is like This Is Dog, throwing in enough heartrending developments for half a season. Denny remains mostly stoic through all the setbacks, though, and the movie relies on Costner’s voiceover to do most of the emotional heavy lifting. This certainly isn’t a subtle movie (Denny is a race-car driver named Swift, after all), but screenwriter Mark Bomback and director Simon Curtis (who previously helmed middle-of-the-road treacle like Goodbye Christopher Robin and Woman in Gold) never know when to hold back even a little bit, and the emotional onslaught quickly becomes numbing.
A strange sequence featuring a home-alone Enzo hallucinating Zoe’s stuffed animals come to life suggests a more surreal version of this story, but it’s just a brief interlude in an otherwise entirely bland, safe movie that exists solely to wring as many tears from its audience as possible. Enzo’s impending death (announced at the very beginning of the movie) guarantees that result, but the cheap tearjerking ploys are just as phony as the idea of a talking, philosophizing dog.