It was a slow start, and at times the rain poured on the track, but the success of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” isn’t won or lost on the first turn. Instead, a slow-at-times though steady pace takes the movie to a solid finish.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Garth Stein, the movie is the story of Formula One race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) as seen and told through the eyes of his dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner). Enzo’s witty yet insightful narration takes us through about 10 years in the life of Swift, his wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Compared to what the title would suggest, the film has little to do with car racing, but uses it as a vehicle of the storyline. Denny’s dreams of car racing are tested throughout the movie as he grapples with the responsibilities of caring for a family and dealing with the tragedies that impact his family.
“If you create your own conditions, you can do anything.” That’s what Denny says about racing, or more specifically, of racing in the rain. The movie took that advice to heart, as it didn’t follow a typical plot structure. In doing so, it struggled to shift itself out of first gear for a number of laps off the starting line. The pacing of the opening crawled its way around, and for nearly a third of the movie, it seemed the movie hadn’t made it past the warm-up laps.
About halfway in, however, things shifted into gear and the plot really took off. As the pacing quickens, so does our attachment to the characters. It’s easy to relate to Denny, who is simply trying to focus on doing everything he can do to keep his family together amidst illness and a tenuous-at-best relationship with his in-laws. Both Ventimiglia and Seyfried carry their roles as a young struggling-but-in-love couple well, as does Armstrong, who plays their young daughter. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan are also exceptional in their roles as Eve’s parents, who are key players throughout the film.
Many will recognize the parallels of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” to another dog-focused movie, 20th Century Fox’s 2008 release “Marley & Me.” Released by the same studio, they both follow the story of a family through the lifespan of their dog. Stein and screenplay co-writer Mark Bomback made a bold choice in departing from tradition by using a dog to narrate the entire film for the studio’s recent release. It was a choice for his book, Stein said, that was inspired by a poem he read that used a similar perspective. While the narration takes a little while to settle into, Enzo’s personality and antics are like that old reliable car we loved for its quirks and faithfulness in getting us from place to place. Costner’s gruff yet exuberant voice works well as our canine-hero narrator that it’s surprisingly not strange that his presence isn’t on the screen.
It can be difficult not to compare the two canine-centric movies, but in tone they are far different. While “Marley & Me” briefly touched on hard topics like miscarriage and the struggles of parenthood via Jon and Jenny Grogan (Owen Wilson & Jennifer Aniston, respectively), there was mostly a light-hearted beat to the movie. It was a tear-jerker in its own right, but there were more moments of laughter than sobs. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” will likely require viewers to use far more tissues than its counterpart. There’s a heaviness that lines the entire movie due to the difficulties that come with illness and tenuous relationships, making the few moments of levity (often the antics of his furry four-footed friend) weighted by the depths of sadness in the film. It’s a story made especially for those who love heart-felt stories of working through tragedy and heartbreak.
Despite its slow start, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” pulled through with a solid finish. It may not have won the race, but it certainly hit the checkered flag with pride in its touching “tail” of life, loss, and love.