[Screen It]


(2019) (Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner) (PG)

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Drama: A pet dog witnesses the ups and downs of his human family's lives.
Denny Swift (MILO VENTIMIGLIA) is an aspiring big-time professional race car driver who's single when he adopts a puppy that he names after the founder of Ferrari. But Enzo (voice of KEVIN COSTNER) isn't an ordinary dog as he thinks like a human, something he aspires to become when his time on Earth is up (we hear his voice-over narration, but no one else does). He initially has Denny all to himself and loves everything race-related, but must eventually share him with Eve (AMANDA SEYFRIED) and then their daughter, Zoe (RYAN KIERA ARMSTRONG), who grows up over the intervening years.

As Denny moves his way up through the racing circuit, he's often away from home for long stretches of time, something that doesn't sit well with Eve's wealthy parents, Trish (KATHY BAKER) and Maxwell (MARTIN DONOVAN). But they end up having greater things to worry about when an unexpected medical condition shows up. From that point on, Enzo tries his best to support Denny, all as additional complications arise.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I've never owned a dog, but I've had plenty of cats in my life and they've ranged from barely ever meowing to one in particular who we clocked at forty-plus meows a minute -- unprovoked. As far as I know, Timmy (or anyone else for that matter) hadn't fallen into a well, so I'm not sure what the urgency was. Nor did I ever figure out whether she was saying the same thing over and over again or was actually "talking" in complete cat sentences, whatever that might be.

While primates can be taught to understand and communicate back via sign language, the vast majority of our "fur babies" will, alas, never fully be understood. That is, except in the movies (and some TV shows). One category -- showing up as either animated or live-action -- features cats, dogs and more where we see their lips moving and hear words coming from their mouths (sometimes understood by humans, sometimes not).

The other features voice-over narration only heard by viewers where the spoken words reflect the animal's inner thoughts. Strangely enough, and I can't think of an example off the top of my head to counter this statement, they seemingly solely focus on dogs. And most of those -- think of "A Dog's Purpose" and "A Dog's Journey" -- have the dog narrating in a language most would associate with how a dog thinks moment by moment.

In "The Art of Racing in the Rain," the pivotal dog is voiced by Kevin Costner as if having been reincarnated from a Harvard philosophy professor -- by way of auto racing -- into the golden retriever named Enzo (for the founder of Ferrari). In fact, the legendary actor's pooch talks about being reincarnated the other direction, and ingraining what he's learned observing humans while in dog form so deep into his soul that it transfers with him -- as dictated by Mongolian legend -- when he achieves humandom.

If that sort of profundity sounds a little odd, you really need to hear it in person over the course of the film's 109-minute runtime. What might have worked in the literary version of this story of the same name -- Garth Stein's 2008 novel -- simply feels out of place and, at times, at odds with the rest of the flick.

It's the tale of Enzo who's purchased by an aspiring race car driver, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), and has that human all to himself until a wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), eventually show up and vie for his attention. I haven't read the source novel, but at least in Mark Bomback's adaptation not much happens for a long stretch of time. And then the melodramatic and emotionally manipulative hammer drops, not once but several times, all designed to tug on heartstrings, get the ocular waterworks going, and break some hearts.

While the old dog bits got to me -- and likely will do the same for any pet owner who's traveled down that path of mortality -- the rest strangely left me somewhat cold. While the performances from the three leads are decent, they're not given enough material early on to engage us for the ride down tragedy road. And the in-laws played by Kathy Baker and especially Martin Donovan are so cartoonish, well, I half-imagined we'd start seeing animated, talking dogs show up.

That doesn't happen, but there is one, food deprivation-based hallucination on the part of the dog imagining a stuffed zebra toy come to life that's so wacky and out of left field that I sort of wished director Simon Curtis would have infused the entire offering with that strange vibe.

Again, all of this might work in written form (and where the reader supplies the voice of their choosing for the dog rather than Mr. Costner's gravely intonations), but it just doesn't here (that is, beyond the final, "Heaven Can Wait" style wrap-up scene). There might be an art to racing in the rain, but there's also one for telling a tale well, and this one, doggone it, ends up barking up the wrong canine philosophical tree. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 8, 2019 / Posted August 9, 2019

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