Rating: (2 stars)
“Sometimes I hate who I am.”
In most movies, an expression of such existential angst is to be expected from the lips of a troubled teen — or a conflicted killer. But in the overheated (yet undercooked) melodrama “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” those thoughts belong to a dog, voiced by Kevin Costner, who articulates the frustration that his character can’t communicate with the struggling racecar driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who owns him. In this sappy entertainment, director Simon Curtis (“Goodbye Christopher Robin”) lays on the drama, but in gearing it to dog lovers, he misses out on all kinds of sports-movie beats that might have made it a more invigorating race.
We first meet aging golden retriever Enzo (named after racer and sports-car creator Enzo Ferrari) when he’s sick and lying, as he puts it, “in a puddle of my own making.” This will immediately tug at the heartstrings of anyone who worries about their furry familiars falling ill. (Guilty as charged). But Costner’s deadly serious line reading makes it almost laughable.
The rest of the movie proceeds as a series of canine flashbacks, beginning with the puppy farm where Enzo was picked out and including the racetrack where his owner, Denny, skillfully maneuvers his vehicle on a wet track (hence the film’s title). Through all Denny’s triumphs and struggles, Enzo is by his side: falling in love; marriage (to Amanda Seyfried); the arrival of a baby; a crippling illness; and a bitter family dispute.
It’s standard fare for humans — at least in soap operas — but for Enzo, the ups and down are just as fraught as the stuffed zebra toy that, in his dog’s mind, poses a cagey and malevolent threat.
The best thing about “Racing” is Enzo’s stream-of-consciousness narration, which puts his canine joys and anxieties into words with humor and pathos (scripted by Mark Bomback, adapting Garth Stein’s 2008 novel). But while Ventimiglia and Seyfried are appealing actors, the story’s human element just isn’t that interesting. The banal, inoffensive pop soundtrack — which includes George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s on-the-nose “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” — doesn’t help. (Would it have killed the music director to throw the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” into the mix?)
Despite its mild charms, “Racing” feels like another nail in the coffin of Costner’s career. The Hollywood veteran, who won directing and best-picture Oscars for 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” — along with a best actor nomination — has been in slow decline ever since. Now he is in talking-animal purgatory. The actor, for his part, gives Enzo all he’s got, but it may be too much. It’s hard not to wince a little when Costner delivers a line like “Somewhere the zebra was dancing.” Not because it isn’t funny, but because Costner reads it like it holds the key to understanding all existence.
And maybe, for a dog, it does.
But by emphasizing the animal story (and its inherent emotional heft) over the — forgive me — underdog sports drama, “Racing” misses an opportunity. Denny is a racecar driver, and the film repeatedly drops the name of the late, legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. But the film’s big races, for the most part, take place off screen.
The movie has its flaws. Still, for anyone with a soft spot for the mute gaze of man’s best friend, it’s hard not to shed a tear — or two — during “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”
PG. At area theaters. Contains strong language, mild violence and a bad dog going to the bathroom where it shouldn’t. 109 minutes.