The way you drive in the rain is to deliberately steer a course through the weather. If you overcorrect or fight the weather, it will slow you down. The Art of Racing in the Rain, 2019’s best dog picture, suggests we deftly maneuver through life’s hardest curveballs in just the same way. Our host is a beauty golden retriever named Enzo and voiced by Kevin Costner. Kevin Costner is a good boy. He lives in Seattle with his race car driving owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia). They share a cozy life until Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and has a kid called Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Enzo must transition from the life of man’s best friend to the protector of the family’s inner peace. We can learn everything we need to know about companionship from our dogs. When Enzo smells a rot in Eve’s brain, we know just about the course this is taking. The family must drive the vessel of their relationship onward, with the faith they have in each other, that love, and connection overcomes all manner of tragedy. In Mongolia, they say a dog that’s lived its best life will live out their next existence as a human. Enzo will do everything he can to become a companion good enough to earn his own humanity.
The best case in a dog movie is that we’re given a canine that compliments the actors on-screen. So much of the time we’ll be focused on a central concept of the story, who cannot willfully act. And so, they can tend to be bogged down by the feeling that comes with that approach. There have already been a rash of recent dog films, this being the only worthwhile one. It works due to Costner’s deeply graveled inflection. Costner, an expert hand at the romantic comedy already, lends good faith to what could be a cumbersome and messy experience of humans acting around dogs. You have to count on the animal being properly trained. They’ll undertake all of their innate abilities as a dog – to comfort, nurture, and protect, and we have to sit with it, and buy it. Here, it largely works, if it does not always feel like actors hanging out with a well-trained puppy.
The story is based on The New York Times bestselling novel by Garth Stein. The translation to screen is cleanly done. It leaves out some abridged info that really helps build Enzo’s character. His consistent in-book claims that he could tell us his story given a proper typewriter, means something different on-page than the dog speaking it out. Because there is either a spoiler or a disconnect in really hearing the voice – yes, this dog must have become human – to tell us he cannot speak with his current tongue, it should require that he has become a human. And if you have become one, you may as well become Kevin Costner. He is as handy a dog ventriloquist as any.
The racing background works in perfect harmony with the story on-screen. Simon Curtis has adapted the book in the most literal of fashion. Luckily, he has been given a better book than the recent rash of other dog movies have to source from. For our regional interests, the film also plays very well into the Seattle locale. Denny’s friends play in the second most popular Soundgarden tribute band around – probably second because they often forget a verse of “Spoonman”. Enzo gets picked up at a farm outside Yakima and our Seattle-bleeding hearts swell as the gorgeous local environments unfold around the screen. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) it’s not, but the city is built for drizzly stay at home romances with bigger ideas than Twilight and 50 Shades. That’s where The Art of Racing in the Rain gets it right. It’s right at home in the Northwest, while the peace lasts.
It’s such a difficult film to watch with an audience. When the ushers came in after the showing, they found this critic’s audience reduced to puddles of tears in their seats. It’s the loudest group cry I think that I’ve heard at a movie. While we were giving our best ugly cry, the melodrama unfolded, in a way I’d usually categorize as manipulative, but the film’s footing is so careful around its tragedies. The film’s interest to produce warmth outweighs the emotional dilemma of how to make us terribly, deeply sad about grief.
Carefully adapted, The Art of Racing in the Rain feels like a holiday film. It covers multiple Christmases. It would be right to put on with the entire family around the fireplace during a cold winter night. It has the warmth and generosity of a different seasonal spirit than is indicated by its August release. There is a genuine heart at its center, helpfulness, and kindness for its audience. Where most dog films merge into manipulative practices in exploiting audience psychology, The Art of Racing in the Rain drives toward a genuine, full-hearted warmth. We just cannot get enough of that right now.