A dog’s biology is a human’s tragedy: They eat, play, love, and then they die; we go on. The Art of Racing in the Rain gets that out of the way in the first scene, when we see Enzo, his muzzle gray and his tail too tired to thump anymore, flopped down on a doormat. His owner, race-car driver Denny Swift (This Is Us’ Milo Ventimiglia), picks him up gently; the music swells.
Has some evil projectionist switched the reels? Can this really already be the end of Enzo? But no, Rain is just running a preliminary stress test on our tear ducts, so that it can begin to do what these movies are supposed to do — cut straight to a waggish litter of sweet cinnamon-colored nuggets, and watch its audience let out a collective sigh of relief: puppies! Then the story (based on Garth Stein’s best-selling 2008 novel of the same name) can get back to the business of celebrating man’s best friend for a good 90 minutes before the grim four-legged reaper returns.
As Enzo (voiced by a confiding, gravelly Kevin Costner) frolics and grows and learns to pee in designated areas, Denny falls in love with a pretty teacher (Amanda Seyfried), gets married, and starts a family; he tries to rise on the racing circuit, but keeps falling just short of the big leagues. Then more sad and happy things happen — things that Enzo, with his gruff inner monologue and his non-opposable thumbs, can only share with the people sitting on the other side of this celluloid.
Rain is not a bad movie, really, and it doesn’t sell itself as anything other than earnest, floppy-eared family entertainment. But there’s a gooey out-of-time feeling to the whole thing that a lot of films like these seem to have — a sentimental IV drip that steadily manipulates heartstrings without ever quite touching anything like true life. There may be moments of hurt and betrayal and even anger in the script, but the only real mess is one Enzo strategically leaves on the carpet, and that’s played strictly for laughs.
So come for the friction-free, scrubbed-clean storytelling, the zen koans about racing and manifesting and loyalty; stay for the series of very good boys (Parker, Butler, Solar, and Orbit among them) who play Enzo. It’s all kibble in the end, but you knew that coming in. B–