On nearly every list of films that are most likely to make you cry, “Marley & Me” makes an appearance. It doesn’t seem to matter if you have ever owned a dog — when Owen Wilson solemnly buries Marley under a tree in the backyard after so many years together, it’s an absolute cry-fest.
“Marley & Me” has been, for a long time, the quientessial dog movie of the 21st century. In the same way that it seemed that no studio would dare touch pirates again after the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” filmmakers seemed to steer clear of the sappy dog flick for fear of treading on familiar territory. But, for the first time in more than 10 years, “Marley & Me” might be faced with its first sizable competitor.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” based on a book of the same name by Garth Stein, follows Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a talented race car driver who can’t seem to catch a break — not professionally, as he’s trying to get discovered by the racing big leagues, nor personally, as he struggles to hold his family together when his wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried), is diagnosed with brain cancer.
Denny’s story is narrated through the eyes of Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), Denny’s golden retriever. If you had imagined Enzo’s internal monologue as resembling the Thoughts of Dog Twitter account, you’d be surprised to discover that Enzo isn’t like other dogs. He’s deeply inquisitive, philosophical and intentional; he believes that once he has served his function and learned all he can, he will be reincarnated as a human. His purpose, as he sees it, is to protect his owners from their own self-destructive tendencies, which are, naturally, manifested as a demonic zebra stuffed animal.
As far as book-to-screen translations go, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” poses a few challenges — namely, the fact that the narration is a dog’s internal monologue. It’s a tell-not-show format that lends itself to some memorable platitudes but leaves little room for interpretation. For the film version, it also means that gravitas hinges entirely upon Costner’s ability to convincingly describe the world through an animal’s eyes.
At first, Costner’s deep, aged voice is at odds with the youthful eagerness viewers might expect from a golden retriever, but the dust settles on this initial dissonance and gets into the rhythm of Costner’s musings. Thankfully, the film does not stray too far from its source material’s original text, which had already completed much of the legwork by thoughtfully composing a narrative littered with nuggets of wisdom and heart-wrenching moments.
In a way, most dog movies are cinematically unambitious. They’re intended to exploit a very specific yet common experience — sharing some of the most important moments in your life with a dog, only to lose the dog in the end. Simplicity and honesty are the name of the game. Getting you to cry your eyes out is the name of the goal.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” gets the job done. What Enzo’s golden-brown eyes and enthusiastic barks can’t accomplish, Denny and Eve’s relationship can. Sprinkle in a few racing-themed metaphors for the inner workings of the universe, and the script has successfully built out a feel-good dog story that will end any droughts in viewers’ eyes.
But simultaneously, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” endeavors to suggest that it’s much more than a dog movie. It’s hellbent on providing comfort and explanation in the wake of unexpected tragedy. It’s determined to explore, in a very philosophical way, the truths behind why we fail and what obstacles keep us from loving fully and completely. It would be to Stein’s discredit to not appreciate how Enzo’s story asks more from us than that we just hug our dogs a little more tightly.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].