At some point, pretty much everyone who’s owned a dog has stared into the creature’s soulful brown eyes and wondered what it was thinking. Director Simon Curtis’ decade-in-the-making “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a simple-minded yet skillfully manipulative answer to that question — featuring the bare-feet-in-loose-gravel voice of Kevin Costner as Enzo, the canine companion to Seattle-based race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) — that’s not as peppy as “A Dog’s Purpose” nor as droll as “Isle of Dogs,” and nowhere near as inane as “Look Who’s Talking Now” but still effective on its own dog-forsaken terms.
This movie’s entire raison d’être is to make you cry, and in that respect, novelist Garth Stein piled on nearly every ploy — from Enzo’s death (it’s signaled right there in the opening scene) to a cancer diagnosis to a custody battle to an impossible reunion — to wring tears from his readers. Faithfully adapting Stein’s well-liked best-seller, screenwriter Mark Bomback maintains the book’s folksy tone, relying more on Enzo’s narration than on conventional dramaturgy to bring the story to life.
The on-screen Enzo is a gorgeous golden retriever, though the attractive-looking movie doesn’t demand much of its dog actors, apart from looking handsome. That allows audiences to project whatever wisdom they please onto the blank-faced animal, while Costner’s voice supplies his personality: earnest, loyal, an old soul in a puppy’s body. Costner is the unseen MVP in this pretty-person ensemble, driving the plot forward as Denny only wishes he could a Formula One speedster. Except for a couple innocent bladder-control problems, Enzo is relatively well-behaved, as are nearly all the characters in a film with all the complexity of a car commercial.
The movie introduces Enzo lying in a puddle of his own urine waiting for Denny to come home, in a scene that establishes the idea of wanting to be reborn as a human — and not just any human, but a race car driver like his owner. No prizes for audiences who guess this theme will return, especially after “A Dog’s Purpose” so recently exploited the idea of canine reincarnation. Having seeded its ending from the outset, the movie then flashes back to Enzo’s adoption as an adorable puppy (whose “soul felt more human” than its siblings) by Denny, an impulsive young bachelor and roguish speed racer. When his best friends ask how someone who’s away so often will care for a puppy, Denny shrugs off the question — which, amazingly, the film never requires him to answer.
Rather, it skips ahead to the arrival of Amanda Seyfried’s Eve, an unfamiliar (to Enzo) young woman who infringes on the dog-and-master’s previously codependent relationship. Enzo is slow to accept this blond-haired, lotion-scented intruder, offering a few amusing if a little-too-cutesy observations that Stein presents as the possible — but not very plausible — thoughts of a cautiously jealous pet. At the wedding, Enzo carries the rings down the aisle (it is here that he meets “the twins,” as he mistakenly identifies Eve’s parents, played by Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker), and a short time later, baby Zoe is born.
Stein coaxes easy laughs with malapropisms and canine misassumptions, like Enzo’s tentative curiosity about what was happening “inside Eve’s magic sac, where the baby was being assembled,” which would be fine if he weren’t so preternaturally profound when the screenplay calls for it. As a point of contrast, it’s worth considering two animated projects that more genuinely capture the canine spirit: Pixar’s “Up,” in which Dug’s dog-translating collar reveals how basic its thoughts truly are, and Disney’s Oscar-winning short “Feast,” which traverses a couple’s relationship from the dog’s POV. “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” on the other hand, depends on putting human thoughts in Enzo’s head, while largely ignoring the character’s inherent dog-ness.
At this point, we still don’t know what Denny does with Enzo when he travels, which is strange, since his in-laws’ displeasure at his dangerous and frequently distant career will become the central conflict of the film. (Wouldn’t Enzo have an opinion on this, if he’s also being left alone on every trip?) The night Zoe is born, Denny is having a breakthrough race clear across the country at Daytona Beach. A few years later, during the most crucial moment in his wife’s life, Denny’s again on the road, resulting in Enzo being abandoned for nearly 48 hours. When the dog destroys a playroom full of stuffed animals, there are no consequences, since that would inevitably complicate our feelings toward Denny.
In the real world, it’s not such a crime for a dog owner and husband to leave his family behind on occasion, although the movie affects an exaggerated sense of outrage when Zoe’s grandparents sue Denny for custody of his preteen daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). If this seems like a lot of emotional manipulation to manage, be grateful for the omission of a too-much subplot in which Denny must also face sexual assault allegations raised by a distant relative, where Enzo the dog was the only eyewitness to what really happened. Formerly naive when it suited the tone, Enzo now shows an unusually keen understanding of his master’s complicated legal predicament — aided by years of “Law & Order” reruns — jumping in at the key moment to change the course of the case.
Through it all, Enzo focuses on his ultimate dream: that one day, he would get to race. In a violation akin to marketing “Roma” with photos of the beachside group hug, this movie’s poster has already given away how that desire will resolve itself. Granted, there aren’t a lot of surprises in “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” If anything, knowing — or at least anticipating — how the film’s myriad tragedies will unfold seems to heighten the effect. At the film’s premiere, I found myself surrounded by sobs, which began remarkably early in the story, and would advise those who go looking for catharsis to pack plenty of tissue. Weeping in the rain, the water masks your grief, whereas this movie seems fully committed to making it rain indoors.