Simon Curtis’ The Art of Racing in the Rain is kind of two different movies in one. First, you’ve got the treacly, familiar (but competently executed) melodrama you’re probably expecting, complete with all the requisite milestones of birth, marriage, illness and death and a cynical parable about the ability of rich people to get what they want thrown in to boot. On the other hand, you’ve got a far more interesting story about the nobility of living your life in preparation for your death, framed around the impressive inner monologue of a family dog.
Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) is a race car driver on the lower rungs of the circuit when he impulsively adopts a puppy and names him Enzo, after Enzo Ferrari. Enzo observes, in the voice of Kevin Costner, both Denny’s tumultuous career and his far more rewarding personal life, as he marries Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and raises a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), in Seattle, which gets plenty of specific references (“Seattle’s third most popular Soundgarden tribute band,” anyone?) despite the film being shot in Vancouver. It all ostensibly takes place in the present day and yet depicts characters listening to Silverchair, which no one has done for 25 years.
Curtis has a history of drawing good actors to his handsome, personality-free productions; his last two efforts were Goodbye Christopher Robin (Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie) and Woman in Gold (Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds). That pays off for him here, as Ventimiglia scores with arguably his biggest non-television role yet and Seyfried’s natural star power elevates a stock romantic interest character. Meanwhile, as the villain of the piece, Martin Donovan oozes exquisitely in the role of Eve’s disapproving dad (Kathy Baker, as Eve’s mom, has her immense talents sadly underutilized).
But The Art of Racing in the Rain thrives on the strength of Costner’s vocal performance. The one-time heartthrob, now in his 60s, has eased gracefully into older age in recent years (do check out Niki Caro’s underrated McFarland, USA from 2015). Here, he lays the seasoned, husky tones on thick, even in the early scenes where Enzo is still young. It may seem incongruous with the point of view shots of a wobbly puppy gazing up at Denny but the film’s prologue makes clear that these are the memories of a dog approaching the end of his life.
Those memories are articulated in startlingly eloquent prose. When Zoe is born, Enzo tells of “… the power she wielded over me with no more effort than the earth does the moon in its orbit.” The Art of Racing in the Rain makes clear that Enzo understands English and could express himself if only his mouth, tongue and vocal chords allowed him to. There are some hints of what a torturous prison-of-the-mind this creates for him but Curtis, unfortunately but probably wisely, avoids wading too far into the nightmarishness of Enzo’s life.
Perhaps the most important thing that separates humans from all other animals is that we know we are going to die. In this case, though, so does Enzo; he’s already dying when we meet him. Then again, so are we all. It’s probably a coincidence that Curtis places on the soundtrack Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” which was extensively used in last year’s Annihilation, another film about struggling with oblivion. In that film, the characters who suffer the least are those who embrace death. In the midst of an otherwise by-the-numbers bestseller adaptation, Enzo encourages us to do the same.