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Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Does it ever seem to you that Hollywood executives get the exact same idea at the same time?  How else do you account that The Art of Racing in the Rain is the third movie in 2019 that's narrated by and seen through the eyes of a dog, as they witness the victories and tragedies of its human family?  The earlier films that we got, A Dog's Way Home and A Dog's Journey, were relentlessly cornball, but had a certain charm to them that eventually won me over.  But this time, I had no problem withholding my cynicism, because this is one of the sappiest and forced tear-jerkers to come along in years.

Not that the movie didn't warn me where it was going, when literally the very first thing we see after the studio logo is a shot of a dog laying sick and weak in a puddle of its own urine.  Then we get a voice over narration from the dog's perspective.  The dog, named Enzo, has his thoughts read aloud by Kevin Costner in a low, growling Harrison Ford-like voice.  As Enzo lays near-death, the voice over starts waxing long, poetic prose about what it means to be a dog, and what it means to be human.  Right from the word go, I knew that my emotions were under extreme assault.  And the movie only got worse as it flashed back to the beginning of Enzo's life, and the events that lead up to this sad, lonely scene.

During the course of the film, Enzo is adopted by Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a Seattle-based race car driver who feels a special bond with the little puppy as soon as he lays eyes on him.  He brings the little guy home, the movie throws in some prerequisite humor about the dog doing its business (the first of many), and then we're off and running on a heavy-handed and manipulative story that only gets more contrived as it goes along.  It all starts innocently enough, with Denny having a run-in with a young woman named Eve (Amanda Seyfried).  They hit it off, and are soon married, though Eve's stuck up parents (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker, playing snooty dog-haters) don't approve of the union.  They have a precocious little daughter named Zoe (played by the precocious Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and seem to be forming a happy family.  All the while, Enzo provides long-winded nuggets of wisdom on the soundtrack like "That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny".  I assume lines like that read better in the original novel by Garth Stein that the film is based on, rather than hearing them spoken out loud in Costner's voice.

But, just as Enzo is becoming happy with family life, tragedy has to strike.  There are the telltale signs that Eve is secretly popping a lot of pills. ("It's just a headache", she says.) Before you know it, she's been struck down with cancer, every writer's favorite disease when it comes to constructing a melodrama.  So, we get an extended part of the film where the family rallies behind Eve as she fights for her life, almost as if the movie is delaying the inevitable.  All the while, her parents stare accusingly at Denny.  They don't like that his job as a race car driver keeps him away from his wife and daughter for long periods.  Her father even suggests that maybe if Denny were around more, he would have known she was sick, and she could have been treated faster.  He has to think this way, because he has been written not as a three-dimensional character, but as a cold hearted villain.  Every action and line of dialogue has been written to make the audience despise him.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is shameless in extracting tears from its audience.  It does so relentlessly by piling on one manufactured crisis after another.  Aside from Eve's battle with cancer, we get the dog fighting for its life after being hit by a distracted driver, and (would you believe it) a courtroom scene where Denny has to defend his character and prove that he's been a good parent to his daughter, because his scheming father-in-law has hit him up with a phony assault charge, where he sends the police to drag Denny away in front of the dog, who barks in protest.  What's wrong about making a simple and sweet film about a race car driver building a bond with a dog, and the dog learning to love cars and racing?  Would that be so wrong?  Why did the story need so much forced melodramatics?  I've not read the novel, so I can't say if it's accurate or not.  I've learned that the book was a massive best seller, so I can only assume that something got lost in the translation.

As it plays, the movie is a long, depressing slog of tragedies, lessened only once in a while by the occasional dog poop joke.  It's so desperate to hit the emotional buttons of its audience, and slams upon those buttons so hard, that it eventually got to the point that I wanted to start slamming back.  I felt emotionally assaulted for almost the entire running time.  I can enjoy a good tear-jerker built around a dog as much as the next person.  Like I said in my review of A Dog's Journey, I am not made of stone.  But I felt violated watching this.  It was so desperately trying to wring the tears from my eyes, I found myself resisting and constantly fighting the movie's forced charms.  That's not a fun experience.  It's better when a movie slowly works its way onto an audience, rather than when it's forcing itself upon you.

This is a movie that tries to teach us the joys of racing, the love of family, the pain of loss, the acceptance of death, the bond of a father and a daughter, the bond between a family and a dog, and how we all know when it is time to leave this world, and that we will come back in another life when it is all over.  I can agree with these sentiments, but the way this movie tries to ram these ideas down our throats is kind of repulsive. 

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