I hate trite, sentimental dog movies that make me sob in my seat like a big baby. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is the latest, and it is unforgiving.
A film adaptation of Garth Stein’s 2008 novel, it’s essentially a feature-length “special occasions” greeting card — a tale of family travail and uplift that works on a viewer’s tear ducts like a pickpocket working a crowded subway car. It stars Milo Ventimiglia, of “This Is Us,” a popular TV show with which it shares a certain emotional glibness, and Amanda Seyfried, of the enormous eyes and weepy resume (“Letters to Juliet,” “The End of Love”).
It also enlists a series of gorgeous golden retrievers, from puppies to old fellas, to play Enzo, narrator of the movie and the canine sidekick of race car driver Denny Swift (Ventimiglia). Enzo speaks in the gruff, wise tones of Kevin Costner, who could be selling coffee in some 30-second spot but instead plies us with Stein’s soulfully shallow observations on humans and their foibles.
“It must be difficult being a person,” Enzo concludes at one point, after watching Denny woo and marry Eve (Seyfried) and have a daughter with her (who grows into a 7-year-old Ryan Kiera Armstrong), only to lose Eve to cancer. While it has taken Denny’s best friend a while to warm up to Eve when she first arrives on the scene — Enzo does admire her “opposable thumbs and plump buttocks” in one slightly odd aside — by the film’s midpoint, he’s as grieved to lose her as anyone.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” then mostly drops the dog from the picture for some melodramatic suspense about whether the daughter, Zoe, will be allowed to stay with her father — auto-racing being a dangerous profession for a single dad — or have to go live with Eve’s parents, played by Kathy Baker (sweet, maternal) and Martin Donovan (mean, dog-hating). If the film finds a genuine locus of family away from man and mutt, it’s among Denny’s fellow mechanics and the pit crew of the local racetrack overseen by a fatherly Gary Cole.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is professionally if impersonally directed (by Simon Curtis, of “My Week with Marilyn”), shot, acted, and scored. It’s a PG movie with pleasantly canned life lessons, and it’s safe for kids and adults alike, although anyone with a shred of cynicism may not want to be seen caving in to the script’s emotional inevitabilities. Above all, it’s fundamentally kind-hearted, which is rare and worth appreciating even in its more toothless varieties.
And unlike Marley — and certainly Old Yeller — Enzo is allowed a long life and graceful exit, the dramatization of which will reduce anyone who has forged a bond with a dog of their own to shameless blubbering and — oh, sweet Jesus, here I go again.
Regarding dogs who narrate their own movies. Bodhi the labradoodle sits at my feet as I type this, and if he could talk, he’d say, “Why on earth would you want me to talk? Anthropomorphism is for you folks — it’s your way of translating our animal nature into yours, the better to pretend we’re small, quadripedal people who have favorite TV shows, make wisecracks, and offer homilies on the human condition. I’d rather you do me the honor of respecting my essential, unknowable dogginess. More important, when’s dinner?”
Bodhi’s a good boy. Enzo is, too. The movie’s just so-so.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
Directed by Simon Curtis. Written by Mark Bomback, based on the novel by Garth Stein. Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, and the voice of Kevin Costner. At Boston area theaters. 122 minutes. PG (thematic material, i.e., cancer, death, family squabbling, one forgivable instance of rug soiling).