Timing is everything when it comes to release dates for similar projects. Though Garth Stein’s popular 2008 novel The Art Of Racing In The Rain could be credited with kicking off a whole genre of tearjerking family stories narrated by dogs, W. Bruce Cameron’s subsequent cottage industry of dog-centric books beat it to the big screen several times over. The film adaptation of The Art Of Racing In The Rain follows on the heels of two separate Cameron adaptations released this year, A Dog’s Way Home and A Dog’s Journey, the latter itself a direct sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose. So a concept that might once have seemed novel now seems like it’s made one too many laps around the track.
The Art Of Racing In The Rain at least sets itself apart by having the most premises, blending as it does the story of a race car-loving dog who longs to be human with a Nicholas Sparks-inspired family weepie. The dog in question is a golden retriever named Enzo, who, like Bailey in A Dog’s Purpose and Bella in A Dog’s Way Home, narrates the film from his four-legged point of view. A gravely voiced Kevin Costner provides hefty gravitas in place of the excitable naiveté Josh Gad and Bryce Dallas Howard brought to their own dog voice performances this year. And there’s some fun to be had in the contrast between Enzo’s canine perspective and the deep knowledge of the human world he’s gathered from his love of television. In his opening voice-over, he casually tosses off a reference to a Mongolian documentary he caught on TV one time.
That documentary introduced Enzo to the Mongolian legend that dogs who live good lives can be reincarnated as human beings. Enzo’s central existential drive is to make himself worthy of coming back with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak to the people he loves. That’s easy enough when he’s enjoying a bachelor lifestyle with his owner/best friend, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One driver with a knack for, yes, racing in the rain. Yet Enzo bristles when kindhearted ESL teacher Eve (Amanda Seyfried) joins their family. He need not fear, however, as Eve is so obsessively supportive of her husband’s career it almost starts to seem pathological.
Enzo puts aside his grudge once Eve and Denny have a baby. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Eve’s hoity rich parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan), who passive aggressively resent the struggling racecar driver who married their daughter. Curiously, however, the driving premise actually has very little to do with the film’s central dramatic conflict, which is more of the cancer and custody-battles variety. The dangers of racing are mentioned in passing, but, really, Denny could have any demanding job that kept him away from his family. There are only a few brief racing sequences, none of which are all that exciting. If anything, the pointedly rosy portrait of Ferrari—whose founder Enzo is named after—plays like a preemptive PR strike against this year’s upcoming Ford V Ferrari..
Despite its dog-centric poignancy and human-centric tragedy, there’s a curiously staid quality to The Art Of Racing In The Rain. Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman In Gold) and screenwriter Mark Bomback sand off the novel’s roughest edges (including, wisely, a false rape accusation storyline) and telegraph the film’s saddest developments well in advance, which makes the tragedy go down easier but robs the movie of any real stakes. Though the cast have all demonstrated their skill at generating pathos in other projects (Ventimiglia, in particular, brings plenty to a similarly paternal role on This Is Us), it feels like they were directed to keep things restrained rather than truly delving into the emotional messiness of the story.
As evidenced by the tagline “from the studio that brought you Marley & Me,” The Art Of Racing In The Rain knows its dog-loving audience, and neither tarnishes the dog-movie form nor elevates it. It offers likable actors, tearjerking catharsis, and a few creative sequences that hint at the bonkers film this might have been had it leaned into full-tilt weirdness, particularly in Enzo’s ongoing rivalry with a stuffed zebra toy that he refers to as a “demon.” Instead, The Art Of Racing In The Rain is a middle-of-the-road movie calibrated to appeal to middle America, with Enzo’s constant racing metaphors making it feel like a morality play without a coherent moral. The Art Of Racing In The Rain will play well for those who consider their pets to be full-fledged family members, but otherwise this dog’s journey lacks a purpose or any sense of artistry.