A DERIVATIVE AND FAMILIAR DRAMEDY
Over the past several years, movies narratives about dogs have taken center stage; tugging at the heartstrings of viewer’s attention with their cuteness and emotional struggles. The idea of “man’s best friend” has always been a fascinating format for audience members to care about the friendship / companionship between a canine (whatever the breed might be or even wild / domesticated). This has been captured in feature films like Alpha, White Fang, A Dog’s Purpose, Marley & Me, A Dog’s Way Home, and several others. Now, 20th Century Fox (a Fox 2000 Picture) and director Simon Curtis presents the latest of cinematic narrative that features a dog as the main focal point with the film The Art of Racing in the Rain; based on the book by Garcia Stein. Does this movie find a balance between heart or storytelling or is it another manipulative tear-jerker endeavor from Hollywood?
One day, while on his way to work, racer car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) unexpectedly decides to buy a puppy, bringing the young Golden Retriever canine named Enzo (Kevin Costner) into his life. As a skilled driver, but lacking the opportunities to go professional, Denny’s trying to make ends meet, joined by his loyal companion, who enjoys observing the ways of racing world, especially when he’s physically there on the pit crew sidelines or watching it on television. As the years begin to pass by, Denny finds love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and they soon bring their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) into the world, with Enzo adjusting to accommodate his owner’s changing lifestyles; eventually warming up the newest additions to family. However, while Denny still purses his dream, this passion pulls him out of town almost every weekend, leaving Eve to keep the household together as a sudden and unexpected change occurs. Feeling the gravitas of responsibility, keeps Enzo close, only to face the challenges of Eve’s condition as well as her parents, Maxwell (Martin Donovan) and Trish (Kathy Baker), who begin question the man’s stability in young Zoe’s life. While Denny deals with sudden changes in his life, Enzo stays right with him, trying to figure out what to make sense out of life’s harsh curve balls to Denny’s family.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I will say that I am a dog lover. I’ve had three American Eskimos dogs in life so far, with Sasha being the first, Scarlett the second (I got Sasha and Scarlett roughly around the same time and had them for most of schooling years), and currently have my dog (Mia) with me. So, I do personally understand the loveable nature and companionship between a person and their dog. Thus, I do get the understanding and emotional drive behind create a theatrical feature film that centers around a canine dog and their owner (or family of owners); blossoming into a heartfelt journey of friendship. That being said, the movies have always been a bit sappy and (to a certain degree) a bit depressing; heavily relying on trying to create emotional beats and replicating manipulative somber / touching moments through various sequences. It because of that reason why movie endeavors like this are a bit of a “double edge” sword, with finding many of the recent projects being way too similar in story plot points and same manufactured emotions.
Of course, this brings me back to talking about The Art of Racing in the Rain, a 2019 move dramedy feature that is based on the book of the same name by Garcia Stein. Since I work at a bookstore for many years, I’ve seeing plenty of customers by ask / buy for Stein’s book, so I was fully aware of the popularity that the book held. I even read the back-cover synopsis of the novel, so I did get the idea of the story, but I actually never read the book. Flash forward to the present (a few months prior to this review post), and I heard about this movie, which was to be a film adaptation of Stein’s literary work. I remember seeing the movie trailer and kind of felt had a “wishy washy” impression feeling about the film; feeling possibly slightly derivate to other recent features like A Dog’s Purpose and Marley and Me. However, I did like how Kevin Costner was gonna provide the voiceover work for the main dog character of Enzo. So, I kind of knew what to expect from the movie and wasn’t really on my “must see” movies to immediately see / review for my blog (I think there were four other films being release the same weekend). Thus, I kept pushing seeing The Art of Racing in the Rain for a bit…. until now…. when I had some “downtime” on my day off from work. So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s pretty what I expected it to be….and that’s kind of mediocre “so-so” feeling. While the intent is there and the movie itself is beautiful shot, The Art of Racing in the Rain just simply derivatively familiar and generically depressing. It’s definitely a tear-jerker, but the movie feels more manipulative rather than organic.
As I stated above, I knew the synopsis of the Stein’s novel, but didn’t get the chance to read the book. So, this review is merely based on what the feature film presents and not so much in what was add, change, or removed from Stein’s source material.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is directed by Simon Curtis, whose previous directorial credits include other movies like My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold, and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Given his background of delving into narratives that share both warmth and harsh emotions of reality, Curtis seems like a suitable choice for tackling such a project like Stein’s novel into a feature film. Thus, the overall tone of the film, while heavy and somewhat somber at times (more on that below), does find a nurturing balance of the passage of life, which is seeing through Enzo’s eyes and everchanging decisions that shape Denny’s project life path….in whatever form it takes. Much like similar projects, the film is rooted in emotion (from the get-go) as Curtis shapes the feature into wholesome endeavor intent. Like past directorial works, Curtis also finds a “happy medium” within the overall presentation tone. What do I mean? Well, The Art of Racing in the Rain does have its fair share of heavy moments and thematically emotional charge moments to present within its story, but Curtis’s frames the feature in a way that kid-friendly / approachable for some of the younger viewers to easily digest, despite dealing with some sensitive scenarios. In the end, Curtis makes his cinematic interpretation of Stein’s tale flourish with sentimental and dramatic heart…for better or worse (depending on the viewer’s appeal).
The overall presentation of the film is also pretty good, crafting The Art of Racing in the Rain in an overall pleasing cinematic light Of course, the film’s physical appearance brought won’t catch the attention for any award nominations or anything like that, but it’s a beautifully craft film for a project like this. There’s really nothing horrid, ugly-looking, or “cheap” in the production quality of the feature, with many of the “behind-the-scenes” filmmaking individuals / team in the customary areas of production designs, costumes, set decorations, and cinematography are solid and definitely look and feel appropriate and genuine. Additionally, the film’s score, which was done by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, is quite and well and definitely plays up the film’s thematic tones in its various scenes (from playfully fun and lighthearted to somber and heartfelt melodies).
Unfortunately, The Art of Racing in the Rain, despite its bestselling literary source material popularity, never truly stands out from its competition; creating several criticisms and drawbacks / shortcomings that the feature can’t overcome. Perhaps the most prevalent criticism that I personally felt about watching this movie was the fact of the overall familiarity of the feature. What do I mean? Well, The Art of Racing in the Rain does feel very similar to 2008’s Marley & Me; finding the two narratives almost parallel to many aspects: a family adopts a puppy, the puppy becomes the family’s dog, the dog becomes a focal point for the family, the dog becomes a loveable companion during trying times, etc. So, it’s quite easy to see the similarities. Additionally, the movie also feels quite similar to other dog centric features out there that Hollywood has recently put out, which does make the film’s impact lessen than stellar as the narrative has travelled down multiple times before and this movie doesn’t really bring anything relatively new to the canine story formula. Thus, the movie itself, despite having Stein’s literary work, feels quite derivate from start to finish. Yes, it’s quite touching and palpable (with plenty of heart), but the film’s predictable trajectory path is easy to spot in the movie and quite easy to figure out where the movie is ultimately gonna lead us (the viewers) to.
Another problem with the movie is in its screenplay, which was penned by Mark Bomback. Of course, Stein’s novel acts as the focal blueprint for the movie, but Bomback dissects Stein’s narrative to fit it within a feature film that clocks in around 109 minutes long (i.e. one hour and forty-nine minutes). Unfortunately, while the movie hits all the “big moments” (assuming), much seems lost within the translation of “page to screen” of Stein’s work. Again, I never read the novel, but it seems like the movie’s screenplay glosses over several small (yet important) pieces, especially towards the beginning of the story. In truth, the movie’s approach takes more of an episodic feel, which is something that usually happens within a narrative explaining a whole individual’s lifespan. However, within the construct framing of a theatrical motion picture, this aspect gets compressed, with both Bomback and Curtis trying to find the “large / important” moments from Stein’s novel to present viewers with it. Thus, the movie sometimes skims over certain bits and rings hollow in others. This also makes the film pull the bad habit effect “telling” what happens rather than physically showing it happening. Also, there are a few subplots that the movie presents, but never fully fleshed out them or completes them in a wholesome way; leaving an unfinished impression in these secondary / minor story threads.
Then there’s also the way how the movie tries to manipulate feelings of emotion within its narrative. Of course, I fully expected this aspect as the movie looked to be quite a tear-jerker within various sequences that will surely tug at the heartstrings; pulling a tear or two (or several) from its viewers. Naturally, comes with the territory of a story like this, but most of the movie focuses too heavily on these emotional components in a way to drum up sensitivity with its viewers. Thus, The Art of Racing in the Rain comes off as too sappy and almost a tad depressing to watch; dwelling too much on melancholy than celebration of life (threw Enzo’s eyes).
The cast of the movie is definitely a strength of the feature, with several recognizable acting talents selected to play the story’s various characters. Of course, real star of the movie who definitely have to be Enzo, the Golden Retriever who stands by Denny (and his family) throughout his entire life. Naturally, the various dogs that play up throughout the movie are adorably cute and definitely deserve the credit in being loveable, it’s veteran actor Kevin Costner who actually steals the show as Enzo’s inner voice. Costner, known for his roles in Dance with Wolves, The Bodyguard, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, has (over the past decade) been involved in many projects in both on the big and small screen and his involvement in this particular movie is just another perfect example of his performance. Of course, Costner’s seasoned gravelly “no-nonsense” vocals gives Enzo a very unique inner voice that’s full of wisdom and knowledge. Thus, I think that Costner’s voice for Enzo is rather good and definitely works.
Following Costner, actor Milo Ventimiglia acts as the “human” main lead of the film as Enzo’s owner, Denny Swift. Known for his roles in Heroes, This is Us, and Pathology, Ventimiglia certainly knows how to play the likeable “everyman” within his past projects and displays that persona quite well in The Art of Racing in the Rain. His character is also very relatable and is easy to root for (from start to finish). There’s not much I really didn’t dislike about Ventimiglia’s take on Denny Swift as he fits the bill of the character perfectly. So, I guess that’s a win.
In more secondary roles, actress Amanda Seyfried plays the character of Denny’s wife, Eve. Known for her roles in Mamma Mia!, Mean Girls, and Big Love, Seyfried displays a kindness and warmth to the figure, with the actress capable of handling the portrayal of Eve throughout the movie (be a comforting smile or various emotional scenes). Behind her are Eve’s parents (Maxwell and Trish), who are played by actor Martin Donovan (Ant-Man and Big Little Lies) and actress Kathy Baker (Edward Scissorhands and Cold Mountain). Together both characters act as opposing figures in the story (most notably to Denny), but, though they might have been written as caricatures, both Donovan and Baker’s acting talents are well-placed in the film. Plus, I have to admit that young child actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong (Anne and The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair), who plays Zoe Swift (Denny and Eve’s daughter) in the movie, is quite adorable and cute as a button; handling herself well with her adult co-stars.
The rest of the cast, including actor Gary Cole (Office Space and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) as Don Kitch, actor Andres Joseph (The Inbetween and The Flash) as Tony, actor Ian Lake (Macbeth and Mary Kills People) as Mike, actor McKinley Belcher III (Mercy Street and The Passage) as Mark Finn, are in supporting roles and definitely “fill out” the remainder minor characters in their capacity.
The wisdom of life and the knowledge we learn are captured through the eyes of a golden retriever in the movie The Art of Racing in the Rain. Director Simon Curtis’s latest film takes Garcia Stein’s bestselling novel to tell a wholesome endeavor of a man’s best friend and the ways he get involved within the lives of his owners. While the intent is there and films is well-crafted in its technical presentation and acting talents, the movie just feels manipulative in emotions, derivate and predictable narrative, and loses something in its ultimate translation to the big screen. Personally, it was somewhere between “meh” and okay. Like I said, there story, while compelling, feels quite derivate to other dog centric movies and Costner was great as Enzo’s inner voice, but it’s episodic and sappy didn’t offer much cinematic bite within its presentation. Kind of just felt like another This is Us or Life as We Know It type endeavor. So, my recommendation for this movie is either a “rent it” for fans of the book or those looking for a tear-jerker feature to watch (on a rainy day) as well as a “skip it” for everyone else (it doesn’t really offer much than what’s already been told in similar endeavors). When it’s all said and done, The Art of Racing in the Rain is just another mediocre “book to film” adaptation from a popular / bestselling with so-so melodrama feature movie.
2.8 Out of 5 (Rent It / Skip It)
Released On: August 9th, 2019
Reviewed On: August 28th, 2019
The Art of Racing in the Rain is 109 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material