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Based on the best selling 2008 book by Seattle author Garth Stein The Art of Racing in the Rain is a talking dog movie possessing all that this might imply-  humor, heart-warming, cuddly moments and a simultaneously outsider/insider perspective on family life. But first and foremost it’s a manipulative tear-jerker that was made for some good cathartic cries. Except that for those of us who don’t enjoy feeling triggered, it’s not really a positive release, it’s tense and irritating.

Spoiler alert ahead. Stop now if you haven’t read the book or seen a movie like this before (Marley and Me, etc.). A lead human character dies, and at the end, our canine narrator does too. His name, by the way, is Enzo and he is voiced by Kevin Costner, who turns in a surprisingly believable performance as a wise yet wide-eyed golden retriever (more so when he’s an old dog as the actor’s voice has gotten notably grizzled).

The film aspires to dig deep into existential questions about purpose, destiny and the after-life and sometimes it hits the mark, but a lot of the time, it feels pretentious and silly. The subdued performances by Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried definitely make the whole thing easier to swallow. As Enzo’s owners- race car driver Denny and teacher Eve (and soon enough, parents to daughter Zoe), the pair have a nice chemistry that makes you root for them somewhat even though it’s obvious going in that at some point their relationship is going to end in tragedy. This knowledge sort of looms for the entire film, and it’s hard to completely invest because unlike Enzo, the family isn’t as fleshed out character-wise.

Ventimiglia is best known for his role in the equally emo-driven This is Us, the NBC drama on which he also plays the dad, but his character (and his family) there have a lot more nuance- they’re flawed and real and we care about what happens to them. The same could even be said of the actor’s star-making on role on Gilmore Girls, where he played an angsty teen bad boy with layers you really wanted to peel. Here, it’s not about the humans, their emotions or their thoughts. It’s all about the dog’s and his interpretations of them, which don’t always ring true or enlighten us about their choices. There’s a lack of dimension that doesn’t serve the film well, especially when Eve’s wealthy parents start to get more screen time. Her dad is a douchebag and her mom is his dutifully weak wife, going along with her husband even when he does a deplorable thing to Denny, who of course was never good enough for his baby girl.

It’s telling that of the two deaths in this movie, one is substantially harder to take than the other. If you’re an animal lover it’s almost always easier to watch a human bite the dust, though. Animals and dogs in particular, are loyal and innocent and just want to love and be loved. Two scenes are extra hard to watch; one, when our hairy hero is left home alone for days and goes kind of crazy, and another in a vet’s office (anyone who’s gone through the agony of having a sick or injured pet will not enjoy it).

For Enzo, everything seemingly has parallels to his human’s professional calling racing cars (and reincarnation), so the film’s metaphoric take on life ends on a hopeful note, but it’s too little, too late. For those with a beloved pet at home (or in doggie/kitty heaven), this piece of mourn-porn simply drives around the tear-drenched track one too many times.

 

LA Weekly