We can only hope that in a few years, a film studies graduate student will write about the curious late-2010s trend of movies exploring the notion of the canine soul and possibly turn up some answers about the appeal of these films, beyond simple affection for man’s best friend.
Perhaps, during such troubled times, we need to believe in a higher power that is as steady and accessible as a dog, with their unyielding devotion and searching eyes. As animal lovers, we want to believe there’s something more to the dog-human connection than just food and shelter, and movies from a dog’s point of view assert their emotional intelligence and humanity while celebrating their inherent doggishness. While this has been explored with cutesy morbidity in the pup reincarnation series “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home,” “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” directed by Simon Curtis, written by Mark Bomback and adapted from the 2008 novel by Garth Stein, takes an approach that’s far more erudite.
Our furry narrator is Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), a golden retriever who’s not like other dogs. In his opening monologue, he intones with gravelly gravitas that “gestures are all I have.” He laments the engineering of his flat tongue, which prevents him from expressing anything more complicated than monosyllabic sounds, and announces he’s lying in “a puddle of my own making.” A believer in Mongolian dog mysticism, Enzo announces that when he comes back as a human, he’s going to remember everything he’s learned as a dog while living with his owner, Denny (Milo Ventimiglia).
“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” while a tearjerker, is a very strange movie, starting with its mouthful of a title. The film makes frequent reference to said art of racing in the rain, a skill Denny has mastered as a race car driver in Seattle. It seems to be the idea of anticipating the skid so you can create and therefore control the skid, to eliminate unpredictable variables. The metaphor doesn’t neatly track onto the life lessons presented, but it offers the characters a chance to speak often about manifesting their own reality. It’s heady but incredibly vague, and the unpredictable variables thrown Denny and Enzo’s way are doozies: a romance and marriage with the beautiful Eve (Amanda Seyfried), the birth of Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), terminal illness, litigious in-laws, custody battles, financial trouble, etc.
Even though Denny claims there’s an art to racing in the rain (and that he’s the best there is), if his life story is any case study, the only secret to getting through the struggles life throws at you is sheer perseverance. Denny is fooling himself if he thinks there’s any art to it beyond holding on for dear life. But the racing metaphors sure do make for neat motivational speeches.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is ostensibly a story about what Enzo the dog learns about life as a companion to Denny, Eve and Zoe, a wordless omnipresence who takes it all in, the good, the bad and the ugly. One would hope that perhaps a film filled with such melodrama and pathos would unearth an observation about the existential nature of life and death beyond “racing cars is fun.” But after all that philosophizing, that’s all Enzo leaves us with. What else could we expect from such pup psychology?
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release