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August 11, 2019

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Floppy-eared film is heavy-pawed

THE film adaptation of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” seems to have been designed by an algorithm to maximize appeal for a certain demographic of women aged around 30 and up. Let’s take the lovable dad from “This is Us” (Milo Ventimiglia), pair him with an irresistible dog and show these two photogenic creatures experience life and all its greeting card-ready moments together. This, friends, is the definition of a trap.

For those on the fence, it’s not as sickly saccharine as you might expect (or fear). Director Simon Curtis, writers Mark Bomback and author Garth Stein and the appealing cast including Amanda Seyfried and Kevin Costner (who voices the dog) have some restraint and style. They know not to pack it on too thick. But no matter how you dress it up and no matter how many good songs you play, it’s still an ice cream sundae of emotion, cliches and big moments with a dog on top.

Stein helped adapt his best-selling 2008 novel about a wannabe race car driver, Denny (Ventimiglia) and his dog Enzo for the screen (and tissue sales). It’s told from the dog’s point of view, although thankfully there’s no uncanny, mouth-moving CGI happening here. Although there is a questionable fever dream of a scene involving a stuffed zebra come to life. For the most part, though, Enzo is just a dog with an interior monologue. Through that inner voice, we get to know that he feels he’s more human than dog and is deeply frustrated by the anatomical limitations (flat tongue, he says) that prevent him from speaking English. At one point, as if echo-ing the existential crisis of “Toy Story 4’s” Forky, he even go so far to say he hates who he is.

Enzo has both a childlike innocence and a strange worldliness, attributed mostly to the hours he spends watching television with Denny, and eventually Eve (Seyfried), who is suddenly competition for Denny’s affections. In the book, his soulfulness has a more definite source. He believes in a Mongolian legend that dogs who are ready will be reincarnated as humans, thus he spends his days trying to learn as much about the human condition as possible.

This idea, seemingly central to the book, is introduced curiously late in the film however.

In any event, Enzo bears witness to it all as the actors go about their business in the background, helping Denny through his ups and disproportionate downs and telling the audience what’s happening and what it means.

But at a certain point, the experience of watching this all unfold through Enzo’s eyes becomes the alienating element. You’re not experiencing the big moments yourself, you’re just experiencing Enzo experiencing them, leaving you to wonder if the story and performances alone are anything special without the dog’s metaphors and poeticisms.

In this respect the voyeurism wears a little thin, especially when the humans get involved in an all-encompassing legal battle. In some ways, it’s difficult to even evaluate as a movie at all.

Even so, it’s a league above some recent dog-tearjerkers. There’s obviously love behind every frame, and for some that’s more than enough.


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