Words and talking
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Reviews

Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

'The Art of Racing in the Rain': Insert terrible driving metaphor

Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

Most Nicholas Sparks movies are insufferable as is. Now imagine if one was narrated by a dog.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" does not actually come from the author of "The Longest Ride" (Garth Stein wrote the novel). Yet the cartoonish class war, almost entirely white cast, simplistic attempts at motivation and use of death simply to conjure maximum tears are all extremely Sparks-ian. Add in non-stop voiceover from a pet with the advanced cognitive abilities of a person and the voice of Kevin Costner and it becomes an excruciating, manipulative dose of Lifetime movie emotion delivered through a daily calendar of competitive driving metaphors.

“Create your own conditions and rain is just rain.” “No race was ever won on the first corner, but many have been lost there.” These are the “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-type insights offered by Enzo (Costner), a faux-intellectual, internal-monologue chatterbox who claims that he always knew that his soul was different from other dogs. Yet he is deprived the existential evaluation that would be appropriate for a narrator who laments “Sometimes I hate what I am” after Eve (Amanda Seyfried of the 2010 Sparks adaptation "Dear John") passes out in the woods and he cannot use words to help. It would have been fascinating if the otherwise mundane storyline was merely a side note against which the movie explored how a dog who can think and feel at such a high level fights against the limited opportunities provided to his species.

To the surprise of no one, this is not that movie. Named after Enzo Ferrari by wannabe Formula One driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), the dog and his ability to memorize racing stats is still just a sidekick as Denny meets and marries Eve and welcomes daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) into their Seattle home. Little needs to be said about this family; Enzo and Eve’s relationship has no dimension or tension other than the inevitable terminal illness, and Ventimiglia’s performance offers not a single moment in which viewers wonder what Denny is thinking or feeling. It is the opposite of the cliche of not being able to take eyes off of him; here, it is difficult to keep attention on him.

Before this watered-down saga becomes a labored custody battle featuring one of the worst legal switcheroos ever captured on film, "The Art of Racing in the Rain" botches almost every decision related to its four-legged guide. (Outside of casting a real dog rather than a CGI animal, which is appreciated.) That begins with Costner, who should never, ever, ever be the voice of a puppy (the movie takes place over a decade or so, and Costner voices Enzo in his youth and beyond) and provides the blandness that has made him an icon for performances described as “tired.” Just as problematic is the character of Enzo himself, who is too mature and thoughtful from the start and deprived of trackable growth as he ages and experiences joy and hardship along with his family. When the movie attempts this, such as Enzo initially not warming to Eve out of jealousy but instantly marveling at Zoe, it just seems unconvincing. And that is to say nothing of the midwife allowing a dog and all its germs into the room instantly after Eve delivers at home.

Obviously, the problems here go beyond Enzo. At no point is it clear what makes Denny special as a driver, and writer Mark Bomback and director Simon Curtis botch the one early scene that would have crystallized the guy’s vision. Rather than show Denny requesting rain tires when the weather is nice because of some otherwise unexplained savvy for predicting bad weather (or maybe he just looked it up online that morning?), we just hear coach Don Kitch (Gary Cole) explain that Denny made a smart move before it started raining. It deprives the rush of being in the car with Denny and experiencing this supposedly clever thinking. Later recognizing that Denny turns into skids before the skid can take control of the car proves no more illuminating than "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

Factor in conflict between Denny and the snooty father-in-law (Martin Donovan) who looks down on the blue collar dude’s reckless profession (before the third act turns the elder man into something far more extreme and dishonest) and "The Art of Racing in the Rain" fails to achieve even the middling returns of other dog-centered efforts like "Marley and Me." At the very least, the movie could have had the dignity not to lean so frequently on tragedy and desperate moments like Zoe saying, “Daddy, when is mommy coming home?” and telling Enzo, “I miss daddy, don’t you?” Or Eve telling Enzo “You don’t mind if I love him too, do you?” as she falls for Denny and confessing to Enzo that she no longer fears death because of her belief in the afterlife, an existence she says Enzo already knows about. The movie periodically takes a bizarre turn toward this sort of pasted-on spirituality, which for what it is worth is not as grueling as the sequence in which Enzo hallucinates Zoe’s toy zebra becoming a ninja and yanking out its own stuffing.

It is one of many moments that makes Enzo’s status at the beginning of the movie (lying in a puddle of his own urine) not seem so bad compared to enduring such misguided schmaltz. (OK, no, but it is not far off.) It is made for neither kids nor adults nor dog lovers nor racing fans, just the most undiscerning of Redbox users and airline passengers without any other programming options. Sheesh, Enzo even makes note of Eve’s “plump buttocks”! Woof.

D

This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.

Matt Pais