Kevin Costner growls out philosophical homilies in this treacly melodrama about a dog teaching his master how to love.
I spent most of The Art of Racing in the Rain thinking of one of my favorite Roger Ebert lines. In his review of Marie Antoinette, he said, “[… N]o one ever lives as Then; it is always Now.” But aside from thinking of Ebert and Sofia Coppola during a film where Kevin Costner voices a dog, this quote still happened to find a parallel by its end. “The best drivers don’t dwell on the future or the past,” this golden retriever tells us. “They focus on the present.” It plays like it’s intended as some sort of lesson, but in this case, it’s an unintentional autocritique.
For almost all of its 109 minutes, Rain is indebted to Then. Better yet, it can’t function without Then, because all of its story exists in a predetermination that weakens its most basic conflict. After a quick start en media res, this pup walks us through his life starting when racecar driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) named him Enzo. Then come his philosophical voiceovers—tons of them. Not only does this scaffolding prevent the viewer from getting close to the action onscreen, but they feel like what might happen if Lars von Trier tried to write a Hallmark movie.
Some interlocutions explain the film’s title while some milk its droller attempts at humor. Most of them check all the boxes you’d expect, though, taking stretches to introduce Denny’s inevitable highs and lows. That, of course, requires a love interest. That interest is Eve (Amanda Seyfried), a schoolteacher whom Enzo… ogles from behind? (Yes, really.) When she says yes to a date with Denny, it just feels easy. Since the pacing is so inconsistent, it’s hard to tell just how odd it is that, in the movie’s runtime, they end up married five minutes later.
That, of course, brings in a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and due to Denny’s bad boy nature, disapproval from Eve’s parents. But like the myopic sight of its narrator, Rain can never put enough focus on one person or conflicts that unfold. As Mark Bomback’s script tries to lean into melodrama and break the story into a variety of directions, he quickly shows himself as in over his head. Instead, it’s Enzo’s narration that puts Scotch tape over Rain, trying to mask how slapdash its construction really is.
In actuality, Rain doesn’t care for its characters, no matter how much it pretends to. Denny, for one, has about as much personality as your fall 2004 Abercrombie catalogue while Eve functions as a plot device (and the umpteenth waste of Seyfried’s talents). She’s a vessel for pain and an excuse for growth. But none of it matters as Enzo’s constant monologues keep all consequences out of reach. We may hear about what happens in Denny’s life and we may even see bits of it, but at the end of it all, we’re really just hearing it secondhand. From a dog.
Rain doesn’t care for its characters, no matter how much it pretends to.
If nothing else, Rain is mostly consistent in tone and themes (aside from its skittish attempts at inappropriate humor, that is). While this would be a positive in most circumstances, here’s it’s more of a stray observation; Simon Curtis’s direction feels almost vetted in lacking any real voice, as if to slide out of the studio tract as something to consume and digest. It’s about 25 minutes too long, but I’d be lying if I said Costner’s gravelly voice didn’t give a bit of personality to what’s otherwise a slog.
Maybe The Art of Racing in the Rain works better as a book. But I, as someone who’d never heard of Garth Stein’s 2008 novel, sat in the theater distracted by how this movie spends its first half-hour catching audiences up to the present. Then the 35-minute mark came, then 40-minute mark, then the hour. It wasn’t just that I gave up keeping track of this point; it’s that I realized while this story could have functioned in the Now, it rarely tries to.