Dogs are an easy sell for a film. Put a dog in any middle-of-the-road film and it instantly adds a few zeroes to your box-office gross. That’s why there seems to be so many films about dog’s recently (A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Way Home etc.) it’s because the majority of the world love their canine friends and often feel more attached to them than human characters.
This can lead to mixed results with under-developed human characters and a sugary, sentimental story in most cases, but it isn’t an exclusive trap, by balancing both aspects skilfully you can make it worthwhile. Look at Marley & Me; sure, it isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but the dog was there to enhance the human characters and vice versa.
Enter this film, advertised as being ‘from the studio that brought you Marley & Me’ which isn’t really an indication of anything, as the same studio also produced the Alien franchise, but that movie isn’t mentioned. Anyway, I digress, Racing in the Rain is one part sentimental film about a dog to one part advertisement for the Racing lifestyle, and in particular, Formula One, a strange mix to be sure, but will it be effective?
Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) picks out a puppy, Enzo (voice of Kevin Costner) and takes him in the road as he chases his career as a racecar driver. Eventually, Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and their family starts to grow, as Enzo starts to realise his inner humanity.
Firstly, I have to say that a good portion of this film is plainly ridiculous. The voice of Enzo tells how he understands how racing works, how cars work, even how television works, and that was a hard thing to get over. When you establish that your canine character can understand such things, it blurs reality so much that it barely resembles reality. It sits uncomfortably in a world so resembling our own, had it been in a more outlandish and ridiculous world, it wouldn’t have seemed so abrasive, but when next to other reality-based story beats, it stands out like a goth at a flower show.
However, get past this hurdle, and stick with the human element, and you’ll be rewarded with a well-acted and competently delivered piece of drama. The use of drama is most effective in the film’s second act when it takes a turn for the devastating, and really pulls on the heartstrings, it does start to go off the rails again soon after though, with an unnecessary legal-drama subplot that threatens to derail the film completely, luckily it is swiftly resolved and we get back to the dog-human dynamic which is the best thing about the film.
‘Dog films’ really work best when they explore the relationships between humans and their pets, that unique connection they share despite the lack of communication, you learn their body language, start to imagine what they might be thinking, and this film almost achieves that, the connection between Denny and Enzo is strong, as is the connections with his later wife and daughter, this is where the film excels, when it is exploring those relationships.
The racing aspect of the film is hit-and-miss, really. It gives Denny’s character focus on something other than his family, but distracts from it when it starts to implicate that the dog can understand it, and at one point, even voices an ambition to drive himself, and these outrageous asides are what ultimately harms the film from being anything other than just okay.
As a whole, the story occasionally threatens to stray into melodrama territory, but I’d say it handles its heavier emotional beats admirably, knowing when less is more, the narration from a husky Kevin Costner is occasionally exposition-heavy, but is overall, very accomplished and well-balanced.
Acting-wise, Milo Ventimiglia gives a very strong performance as Denny, going through the multiple trails he does, while exhibiting a layered performance, Amanda Seyfried is always very similar I find, never being outstanding while also never being truly terrible, and the dog actually playing Enzo is a joy, possessing a very emotive face and incredible timing for a non-human performer.
In conclusion then, The Art of Racing in the Rain is very middle-of-the-road (ironically) occasionally brushing up against something greater, but dragged down by the more ridiculous. The acting and direction is more-than-satisfactory, but it never feels like it finds the higher gears (that’s the last car pun, I swear). I feel like it could have been better, but there was enough to enjoy about the film, and with a few emotionally touching moments thrown in, it may just be worth a watch for fellow dog-lovers.