The kindest words I can summon about The Art of Racing in the Rain, Disney’s long-awaited adaptation of Garth Stein’s best-selling 2008 airport novel, is that it’s essentially harmless.
It’s not a painful experience, and millions will love it unconditionally, as one loves a dog. To pile on about its turgid writing, its artless direction and its hokey, retrograde messaging seem cruel when the project’s heart is in the right place, but that’s my job.
The movie, like its source material, charts the indelible bond between Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), a just-good-enough stock car driver and auto mechanic (in the book, he’s given the more white-collar perch of BMW sales rep) and Enzo, the golden retriever he selects as a puppy, and who bears witness to monumental changes in his dozen or so years by his owner’s side.
Enzo doesn’t talk, exactly — this isn’t that kind of Disney movie — but he voice-narrates his ruminative and polysyllabic thoughts, and when it’s most convenient for the script, we see the world through his eyes. His musings are read by Kevin Costner in the crusty but folksy manner of a James Patterson audiobook circa 1995, complete with the clichés: “I thought it was heaven on earth” is the best this ebullient canine can muster when describing his first experience on the racetrack, which to his credit is of a piece with the rest of the screenplay. “This kid’s a diamond in the rough,” adds a human character, seconds later.
But it’s hard to top Enzo’s purplest prose of the movie, directed at a stuffed zebra prized by Denny’s daughter Zoe, which Enzo has fashioned as his nemesis: “In the zebra’s mute stare, I could sense my predicament.” It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising electronic composer samples this gem.
An example of chicken kibble for the soul, The Art of Racing in the Rain distills common life experiences — parenthood, loss, mortality, the pull of career versus the anchor of domestic life — into tidy, and relentless, metaphors, usually about stock car racing, i.e., “no race was ever won on the first corner,” and other tepid Confucian throwbacks.
None of these life crises faced by Denny and his family are remotely surprising, because director Simon Curtis telegraphs all of them through music cues and by overselling his points. The moment Denny’s wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried) swallows an aspirin, for instance, we suspect brain cancer, because nobody in movies like this just has a headache.
Everything in The Art of Racing has a higher purpose. Every scene is either an inspirational lesson or a prelude to one, and every frame is suffocating and airless. Messy human relationships are quarantined out of this hermetically sealed world, and with them the reality of three-dimensional characters. It’s sad to see an actor as cerebral as Martin Donovan reduced to playing a stereotypically mean-spirited father-in-law whose every utterance is calculated to demean Denny’s character.
Seyfried, too, is saddled with a thankless part. Even after contracting cancer, she is a saintly, selfless vessel for her husband’s insecurities. Just once, I’d love to see a character break down, curse, throw something, rage against a machine — any machine. But they never leave the bubble.
The closest the movie comes to a fleshed-out character is Enzo, to the extent that he’s hyper-perceptive of his surroundings, and is anthropomorphized to the extreme. But even he moves, blinks and gulps to the beat of a greater destiny — which only reinforces the fact that my happy-go-lucky shih tzu is way behind the intellectual curve.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Director: Simon Curtis; Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kevin Costner, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, McKinley Belcher III; Distributor: Disney/Fox; Opens: Friday at most area theaters