Based on its narrative beats, a strictly superficial reading of The Art of Racing in the Rain could easily frame it as nothing but a shameless melodrama with the sole mission of jerking many a tear from its audience through an endless pounding of manufactured tragedy for its protagonist. (From that perspective, the casting of Milo Ventimiglia from This Is Us seems like supporting evidence.) As Denny, an exceptional racecar driver who’s hit with one heartbreaking and instantly relatable conflict after another, he spends a decade struggling to raise a family and pursue his career against seemingly insurmountable odds. As an actor, Ventimiglia possesses a solemn but determined aura around him that here, as in This is Us, suits the genre.
Yet as opposed to that show, which embraces its inner (and outer) melodrama, The Art of Racing in the Rain manages to rise above the genre’s confines through three genuine and refreshing additions while serving as a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with melodrama in and of itself. Just like any other cinematic template, the key is in how it’s executed.
The first intriguing angle is the story’s most gimmicky one—Denny’s story is told entirely through the point-of-view of his loyal Golden Retriever, Enzo, named after Ferrari and voiced with gruff, heartwarming conviction by Kevin Costner. Mark Bomback’s script, based on the novel by Garth Stein, takes the structure of Marley and Me, which follows the life of a family during the lifetime of their dog, and infuses it with the voice-over that’s supposed to represent the pooch’s inner monologue, à la recent sleeper hits like A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey.
As much as us humans like to assume our dominant nature over our canine companions, there’s an undeniable part of us that envies them their carefree and zen-like existence. So when it comes time for art to gift them with narrative capability, they usually come across as a mix of wisdom adorned with unbridled cosmic knowledge and jokes about how much fun it is to chase squirrels and beg for treats.
Right off the bat, the script makes it clear Enzo is no Doug from Up. This dog has a fairly heightened grasp on his surroundings compared to real dogs. He begins his narration by referencing a documentary about Mongolian farmers he once saw, where their best dogs are given a sacred burial and are believed to come back as humans with the wisdom they gathered in their previous four-legged lives. Enzo believes in this wholeheartedly, so his mission in life is to be as good a companion to Denny and his family as possible, although he’s jealous of the attention Denny’s wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried) gets from Denny.
Even though Enzo’s inner monologue contains the occasional family-friendly comedy about how his understanding of human activities are filtered through the mind of a dog, his general depiction is surprisingly insightful for these types of movies. There’s a mix of sadness and pride in him, sadness in his inability to warn his owners of upcoming tragedy, and pride in his ability to trigger joy in them even in moments of utter helplessness. Also, director Simon Curtis has a knack for visualizing the world through Enzo’s eyes in increasingly imaginative ways, such as his Guillermo Del Toro-adjacent hallucinations about the plush zebra toy of Denny’s daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), which he believes to be a demon who’s causing all the conflict in the family’s life.
Another leg up The Art of Racing in the Rain has over more generic melodramas can be found in its approach to spirituality. Without diving into the dogma of any specific religion, there’s a profoundly warm and earnest understanding of death as transition and not the end. A beautifully quiet and soul-lifting scene between Eve and Enzo during an especially somber moment extracted many a tear, and that’s coming from a strict agnostic. The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t necessarily a faith-based movie, but I wouldn’t be mad if more faith-based movies were like it.
Finally, as the title suggests, this is a film relying heavily on racecar driving as a metaphor for navigating life with grace and determination, especially during times of exceptional hardship. Enzo, like his owner, is a huge nerd when it comes to racing, so he studies alongside Denny its most intricate details. Enzo’s existential metaphors related to racing are a slight step above workplace inspirational posters, but that’s kind of the point, to revel in the objective simplicity that life’s most complex problems sometimes needs.
With layered direction that emphasizes quiet moments over outward emotion during scenes of tragedy, and soulful performances all around, The Art of Racing in the Rain is just the right kind of tearjerker with an injection of positivity that our understandably pessimistic society needs.
Director: Simon Curtis
Writer: Mark Bomback
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner, Amanda Seyfried, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Martin Donovan, Kathy Baker, Gary Cole
Release Date: August 9, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.