I have no idea why Hollywood is under the impression that animal lovers are masochistic enough to go and watch a sad movie about how humans relate to their pets only to deal with the pain of eventually saying goodbye. This is a disturbing cinematic trend, starting with Marley & Me, evolving to films like A Dog’s Purpose, in which a dog drops dead every five minutes. These films could not be easier emotionally, because no matter how basic and emotionally manipulative they are, they work.
The Art of Racing in the Rain follows Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One driver who, on the way home from a race, picks up an adorable golden retriever puppy whom he names Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner) after Enzo Ferrari. We see the events of Denny’s life through the eyes of Enzo – from meeting his girlfriend, and eventual wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried), the two starting a family, and all of the ups and downs (mostly downs) that follow.
This movie is trying to be three specific kinds of Very Sad Movie™ all at once. Discussing what exactly would be a spoiler, but it’s a ridiculous experience to watch all of the tragedies this film throws at its characters in 105 minutes. This seems like it will be about people and their pets and the big and small moments that they enjoy together, and family milestones and it all seems like it will be very life-affirming and uplifting even when tragedy inevitably follows. However, early into the runtime, you realize the narrative is rushing through the happy moments in these characters’ lives. Denny meets, marries and has a child with Eve all within about ten minutes. And you know it’s only going to get worse from here.
I am still not sure if Milo Ventimiglia is a good actor. He has a particular charm that has carried him through his career until now, and this film shows him bringing a lot from his day job on a similarly manipulative tearjerker, NBC’s This is Us. Ventimiglia does good work here, even though it shows no real range from him as an actor. He also has no real chemistry with Amanda Seyfried, and since we spend so little time with the two of them as a couple, the stakes of that relationship don’t feel as immediate as they need to in big moments.
And then there’s the dog. Gravelly-voiced Kevin Costner as the narrating dog Enzo seems like an odd choice from the beginning. We see the action through Enzo’s eyes and as such we have wall-to-wall narration that explains every moment we’re seeing onscreen and tells us how we’re supposed to feel about everything. Enzo also makes very detailed and sharp observations about the human condition that do not sound at all like thoughts that came from an actual dog. Enzo’s observations aim for profound and miss. This is based on a novel, so I’m sure this storytelling device plays out better on the page, but I’ll never know since I won’t bother to read this book.
As far as weepy animal-lover pics go, The Art of Racing in the Rain is mawkish, contrived and melodramatic. Despite everything wrong with it, in the end, it does its job. Even the most disdainful cynic will be in a puddle of tears by the final moments. It’s the dog equivalent of Cameron Diaz’s My Sister’s Keeper – not a particularly well-made film, but effective. The viewer should know this will hurt them and make them sob, but they see it anyway, eager to be hurt deeply. And if you’re in a specific frame of mind where you need a good cry, I suppose you could do worse.