You may be thinking “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is just another talking dog movie. Think again. This adaptation of author Garth Stein’s 2008 best-selling novel is in a different class than the recent, lighter “A Dog’s Purpose”, “A Dog’s Journey” and “A Dog’s Way Home”.
That shift in tone, to a more dramatic and philosophical look at the life of a dog and his human companions, is welcome and effective. And much of the credit goes to the casting. Kevin Costner provides the voice of Enzo, an aging golden retriever looking back on his years with owner Denny. He’s an aspiring race car driver (played by “This is Us” actor Milo Ventimiglia). The pair is later joined on their life journey by girlfriend/wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and daughter Zoey. The four-member family lives in Seattle, WA.
Denny’s raised Enzo from a pup, often taking him to the track for practice and on race days. Denny’s dream is to get onto the Formula One circuit, but life has a way of complicating things. Through it all, it’s Enzo who provides guidance and stability for Denny. Costner, who narrates throughout, does the same for the audience.
Costner was offered the chance to direct “Art of Racing”, which was pitched to Universal, Disney and Sony before finally landing at Fox (which is now owned by Disney). At a post-screening Q&A I attended, producer Neal H. Moritz explained that the Oscar-winner decided against directing, but still wanted to be a part of the project. And he apparently became known as “one-take Kevin”, recording all his dialogue over the course of only five days.
Simon Curtis ultimately signed-on as director. That turned-out to be an inspired choice. The balance of heart, comedy and pathos present in his previous films (“My Week with Marilyn”, “Woman in Gold”, “Goodbye Christopher Robin”) is on full display once again.
Ventimiglia has the look and persona of a racer. Producer Patrick Dempsey, who first optioned Stein’s novel back in 2008, was initially considered for the role of Denny. But he out-aged the role as the film went in and out of favor for nearly a decade. The auto racing aspect of the story takes a back seat, but these action scenes are slick and authentic. Seyfried does well with a role that, if you’re not familiar with the book, has some unexpected depth and dimensions.
But it’s Costner’s voice performance that makes the film. His Enzo provides the wit and wisdom, along with poignant, moving commentary on the ups and downs of each of the characters. There are very few obvious attempts at humor or punchlines. Quite refreshing for an entry in this genre.
“Art of Racing” does go down some conventional tracks in the third act. The melodrama didn’t need to be piled quite so high. And a few obscure, slightly goofier moments don’t translate so well from page to screen. But unlike with another certain dog tale, there is a legitimate “purpose” to nearly every scene and every line of dialogue in “Art of Racing”.
This is a film that will speak (or rather, bark) to many groups: dog lovers, Costner and Ventimiglia fans, auto racing diehards and those who kept the novel on the NY Times best seller list for over three years. Moritz has said this is the favorite movie he’s ever made, mainly because it’s so different from his usual projects (look him up on IMDb and you’ll understand).
No, it won’t be an awards season top dog or earn a blue ribbon as box office champ. But “The Art of Racing in the Rain” will resonate — and word of mouth on the film will be huge. In a summer of action blockbusters and ridiculous remakes this is a ride worth taking.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” gets a B.
Running Time: 107 min.