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Non-Review Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain places a prestige veneer on the weirdness of the recent “man’s best friend” tear-jerker subgenre.

A Dog’s Journey and A Dog’s Purpose were a rough-and-ready example of the genre, films exploring the complicated world of human beings through the simple mind of a dog. There was an almost endearing clumsiness to how ruthlessly those films targeted the audience’s emotional vulnerability; A Dog’s Purpose used the gimmick of reincarnation as a narrative “get out of jail free” card, making a point to kill off its canine protagonist no fewer than three times, understanding this as a shortcut to the audience’s tear ducts.

“It’s about the good walk,
And the hard walk…
… It’s a beautiful ride.”

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a more prestigious product, executed with greater craft. That doesn’t mean that The Art of Racing in the Rain is any less surreal or eccentric than other entries in the subgenre, nor should it imply that The Art of Racing in the Rain has pushed that subgenre beyond the underlying assumptions that the bodily functions of a dog are hilarious. Instead, the polished exterior of The Art of Racing in the Rain is all about execution as opposed to content. The film makes the same points in the same ways, but shifts its tone to approximate sophistication.

The results are no less uncanny for that attempt at sophistication. If anything, The Art of Racing in the Rain feels all the weirder for how it juxtaposes the sillier and goofier “talking animal movie” tropes with the sensibilities of more earnest fare. The Art of Racing in the Rain is aggressive and merciless in its attempt to conjure up an emotional response to its over-extended central metaphor, but the film’s surreality lingers much longer.

Thinks are looking pup.

There is a simple metaphor at the heart of The Art of Racing in the Rain. The film essentially focuses on the life of a dog named Enzo, who is adopted by a race car driver named Denny. Denny is a pretty good driver, but not necessary a great one. Luck seems to be against Denny, denying him the breaks and opportunities that anybody needs to make it to the top of his profession. Although Denny has the good fortune to find a woman he loves and to raise a daughter he adores, the rain never stops falling. Enzo spends his life watching Denny, absorbing the lessons of his life.

Of course, the lesson is quite apparent from that plot summary. Denny is played by actor Milo Ventimiglia, who has had a long and varied career involving television hits like Heroes and This Is Us. However, Denny most obviously evokes the spirit of Ventimiglia’s turn in Rocky Balboa, playing the son of the protagonist. In what might be the film’s most iconic and memorable sequence, Rocky lays out the film’s thesis to his son. “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Keeping his life on track.

This message is at the core of The Art of Racing in the Rain, which subjects Denny to loss after loss after loss, both professional and personal. The movie labours its central racing metaphor, with Enzo repeatedly likening it to a challenge on the race track. “A bad driver will crash,” he explains. “An average driver will pull into the pit.” The truly great driver, Enzo argues with all the wisdom that a television-educated dog can muster, will find a way to preserver and endure, no matter what life throws at them. It is a heartening moral.

However, it is also the only arrow that The Art of Racing in the Rain holds in its quiver. Perhaps reflecting the structure of the sport around which it is based, the art of driving repeatedly in circles, the plotting of The Art of Racing in the Rain is so formulaic that it becomes exhausting. To list the individual misfortunes that befall Denny would be to spoil the film, but all of Denny’s eternal suffering feels like a cosmic punchline. The plot is structured so that most of the hurdles are sequential, each flowing from the last, but it still feels episodic to the point of frustration.

Pet themes.

The formula is simple: something bad happens to Denny, then Enzo reflects on both how unfair the world is and reassures the audience that Denny is a brilliant human being, then Denny manages to endure the trauma that would force a lesser man to buckle. All of this is delivered in an earnest and overwrought manner, as Enzo recites trite philosophy and familiar clichés. Denny, we are repeatedly assured is “the better man” in comparison to all of mankind. “I know no childhood is perfect,” Enzo concedes. “But I’d contend mine was pretty close.”

The formulaic structure of the film and the veneration of Denny prevents The Art of Racing in the Rain from ever reaching the heights to which it clearly aspires. This is a shame, because there is something almost endearing about how committed the film is to getting the audience to cry. There are no pulled punches. The Art of Racing in the Rain never looks at a particular storytelling choice and worries that it might be too obvious or too predictable or too much.

Having its cake and eating it.

There is a purity to this unwavering commitment. As goofy as the entire premise might be, and as ridiculous as the various choices might become, the film plays everything relentlessly straight. This allows for some surprisingly effective moments, such as the sequence in which an aging Enzo reflects on his life as Denny drives him around a race track in a Ferrari, Enzo’s appeals for “one more lap” intercut with dog’s-eye-view flashbacks of his entire life to that point, as the score swells. It is ridiculous, bordering on high camp. However, it also kinda lands.

Similarly, the relative gravitas that The Art of Racing in the Rain affords to Enzo’s philosophical musings, right down to casting Kevin Costner, is skillfully juxtaposed with the sort of strange tangents that inevitably work their way into movies about talking dogs; there are quite a few jokes about Enzo’s bodily functions, including an elaborate premeditated revenge scheme against somebody who has wronged Denny. “I knew peppers were not good for me,” Enzo muses, setting the plan in motion. Few movies as committed to tearjerking will also commit to poop jokes.

A dog’s life.

More than that, the earnestness with which The Art of Racing in the Rain treats Enzo leads to a bizarre dissonance when the film tries to treat him like a character. There is an awkward segment early in the film in which Enzo acts possessive as Denny as he embarks upon a relationship with Eve, Enzo lamenting awkwardly that he cannot compete with Eve’s “pert behind.” When Eve announces that she is pregnant, Enzo reflects to himself, “I hope the baby looks like me.”

These are standard “doggy comedy” beats, designed to juxtapose very human ideas with the unique perspective of a beloved canine companion. However, in the context of The Art of Racing in the Rain, they become something else entirely. There is something hard to quantify in hearing Kevin Costner playing a dog who sees a character played by Amanda Seyfried as a rival for his master’s attention, but that absurdity is amplified when that jealousy is played off the dog’s repeated meditation on Mongolian beliefs about what the cycles of reincarnation awaiting a faithful dog.

A new leash on life.

In fact, this preoccupation with reincarnation unites both A Dog’s Journey and The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s a curious overlap, perhaps tied to the way in which these films are designed to play to younger audiences who may struggle to confront the mortality of beloved family pets. However, A Dog’s Journey treated the idea of reincarnation as a very crude emotional cudgel, one employed frequently and without hesitation. In contrast, The Art of Racing in the Rain plays the beat with greater consideration, which ironically dials up the weirdness to an absurd degree.

The result is a movie that feels at once incredibly earnest and ruthlessly cynical, caught between those two extremes. The movie is a constant tug-of-war between a desire to play up the more prestigious veneer of this sort of weepy and the impulse to indulge the more gonzo elements of a standard “talking dog” movie. The resulting film never quite finds a balance, and suffers from an overly episodic and familiar central plot, but is strangely endearing in its weirdness and dissonance.

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