And to think that this was supposed to be an easy review. From its trailers Simon Curtis’ The Art of Racing in the Rain looked to be your standard, treacly magic dog movie. A race car flavored companion to the reincarnating puppies of A Dog’s Purpose (2017) and A Dog’s Journey (2019), if you will. So Kevin Costner voices a magical golden retriever whose owner is a race car driver, okay, okay. So he’s present throughout his owner’s life as he navigates love, marriage, childbirth, and loss, okay, okay. So the film is going to make some grand metaphor about racing and living life to the fullest, okay, okay. Rain is just rain, pain is just pain, keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the track and you’ll get through. Throw in a couple sing-along acoustic power-pop ballads and Lifetime Original Movie schmaltz and roll credits.
How was anyone to predict it would end up one of the nuttiest, most bafflingly conceived films to be released nationwide since Steven Knight’s video game alternate reality fantasy thriller whatchamacallit Serenity? Leaving the theater, I found myself in a state of shock. More than once my jaw had literally dropped, hand plastered over my mouth to stifle incredulous gasps so as to not bother the sexagenarian audience. More than once I’d stopped myself from walking out over a plot twist or a line of dialogue so contrived or absurd my eyes could’ve rolled out of my head. Watching it, one could almost see where the five competing production companies working on the film—Starbucks Entertainment?!—had inundated Curtis, a fine and respectable British director of historical dramas, with notes and “suggestions.”
Where to begin? Perhaps with Enzo, the Costner-voiced golden retriever at this heart of this ludicrous story. What is this dog? When we first see him, he’s all grown up and lying in a puddle of his own urine as he meditates on the end of his life. Costner gruffs his way through this opening shot with an over-serious monologue packed with juicy reflections on “polysyllabic human tongues” and Mongolian burial rites. Clearly an astute doggie! A mutt of learning and study! Yet later he proves incapable of understanding things like money and pregnancy, referring to the latter as a woman having a “magic sac.” Claiming inconsistency in the internal ramblings of a golden retriever is nitpicky in the worst CinemaSins way, I know, but it speaks to a larger trend of internal inconsistencies within the film that when seriously considered makes the whole thing crumble like Cheetos dust.
Consider: when we meet Enzo’s owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), we learn that he started racing cars after selling his home-grown tech company for a small fortune. But later we see that he still toils as a day laborer in a mechanics shop to pay the bills. He’s so hard-up for money that when his saintly wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried) dies of cancer, her parents sue for custody of their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) so they can give her a sense of “financial stability.” Despite his frequently flying to Europe to compete in races. Or because of it? Honestly this whole custody battle side-plot is so contrived as a blatant excuse to drag out the third act, it’s hard to pay attention to it, even when Enzo imagines the inevitable courtroom scene as an episode of Law & Order complete with stock footage of Sam Waterson as Jack McCoy in the background!
But even if one could turn one’s brain off to enjoy a simple story of a man and his dog, it’s difficult to overstate how poorly made The Art of Racing in the Rain is from a simple technical standpoint. Scenes are alternatively under-lighted and poorly framed. It features some of the sloppiest editing this side of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) with even simple conversations between two or more characters whipping back and forth via micro-edits like the cinematographer used too many cameras for shot coverage and blackmailed the editor to include them all anyway. The film never settles into a consistent visual language, either. Some scenes are shot entirely from Enzo’s POV at floor level as he tries to figure out what’s going on from his limited vantage point like he’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). Other times the film mixes these scenes with objective waist-level medium shots where he’s not even in the frame. And finally there are lengthy passages where the film forgets about Enzo entirely and focuses solely on its human characters, filming them like a bog-standard television drama. And of course, when Enzo finally re-enters the film he somehow knows pretty much everything that’s happened despite not being there.
Of course, none of this will ultimately matter for its intended audience. As scientists have recently discovered, dogs and humans literally evolved together to a point where we emotionally empathize with each other on a biological level more than with any other species. Loving dogs is literally hard-wired into our brains. The Art of Racing in the Rain takes full advantage of this, stretching this ingrained love to its snapping point with scenes of Enzo resting his head on Eve’s pregnant belly, Enzo licking Zoe’s face, Enzo slowly dying in Denny’s arms. One of the final scenes where Denny takes Enzo on a race around a track in a Ferrari sports car had my entire audience sobbing. I was sobbing. It would’ve been blatantly ignoring a biological imperative not to!
But The Art of Racing in the Rain is more than manipulative doggo fluff, it’s a car crash of astonishing proportions. The whole film can perhaps be best summarized in a scene about halfway through the film where Enzo gets left behind at Denny’s house for two days straight without any food. (It’s complicated, don’t ask.) After several minutes of listening to Costner growl about how dogs are evolutionarily predisposed to go long lengths of time without food, the strangest thing happens. Enzo wanders into Zoe’s room and has a hunger hallucination wherein one of her stuffed animals, a creepy looking zebra, literally springs to life as an animated CGI monstrosity that attacks him like a ninja with clumps of cotton torn from its chest. And all while Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” blares in the background. This is the only fantasy scene in the film, the only one with any (obvious) animation. It comes out of nowhere as if summoned from a cheap animated kids movie playing in an adjacent theater, hits us like a shovel, and vanishes without another word, never to be mentioned again. We’re left dumbstruck, wondering what conceivable train of thought led to such an out-of-place, un-telegraphed moment of surreality.
This was an awful movie. But I wouldn’t trade my experience of going into it cold for the world. So far, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater this summer.