In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
The biggest hurdle that any movie about animals has to clear is that it can’t be so powerfully sad that it saps all enjoyment out of it. As a guy with a soft spot for our furry friends (and NOT our oceanic monster pals), I tend to avoid movies about cuddly kibbies and puppums, because I know that at some point the animal will get hurt, whimper while in peril, or die, and I simply will not be able to handle it. Granted, these films typically see fit to follow any amount of animal trauma with sincere humor – usually taking the form of a more villainous character being bit in the peepee by our leading pooch – but even so, it’s hard to erase such sadness from the viewer’s mind, at least when that viewer is me.
Going into The Art of Racing in the Rain, I only knew three things about it. First, the dog’s internal monologue is voiced by Kevin Costner. Second, it’s based on a book. And third, it’s from the producers of Marley & Me. Your mileage may vary on what these facts do to pique your interest, but all they did for me was provide assurance that this movie would be aggressively sad. I was right.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is so so so so sad. If I weren’t an American man so deeply programmed by society not to cry that he finds it near impossible to shed a tear about anything but movies, I would find little value to a movie that opens with an old dog laying in a puddle of his own pee and only gets sadder from there. Yet sometimes a good cry is warranted, and even though this cinematic distraction is a pretty mediocre affair, I challenge anyone not to be brought to tears by its content. Manipulative, sure. Otherwise pointless? Definitely. But I’m happy I saw it…because it made me very very very sad. As I get older, its an increasingly low hurdle for a movie to get my waterworks going, but none make me ugly cry. The Art of Racing in the Rain made me ugly cry. For what it’s worth, it felt good to let some waterworks out, but it will always be weird to me that there’s an audience willing to pay money for such things. I just don’t see how a film beating you into emotional submission is entertainment. But I’m kind of a jerk, so what the hell do I know?
Enzo is a very old dog. He’s been with his owner Denny since he was just a puppy, and presently, Enzo is lying in a pool of urine, fully aware that he’s very close to death. It’s okay though. He understands that as a dog, he has the opportunity to potentially become a human in his next life. He’s made peace with the fact that he may not remember his current life when he makes the transition, but also that it’s all part of the game. If he can be a truly good boy, and live his life with as much love as possible, he’ll be able to bring his wisdom to his next iteration. Yeah, this movie is weird like that.
Enzo gives us a play by play of his life alongside Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a man with a talent and passion for racing cars. He’s the type of unshakeably kind dude who will never do anything wrong under any circumstances, just as long as he can spend some time on the racetrack. He’s a guy who’s so altruistic and selfless that you’d hate to watch him suffer any misfortune at all. Unfortunately, for the next two hours or so, we get to watch him suffer every misfortune in the book, and we get do so through the eyes of a wistful golden retriever with such human awareness that one’s heart can’t help but be warmed by the intuitiveness on display (which I presume comes direct from the source material). The smart ways that Enzo is humanized will cause anyone fortunate enough to love or have loved a dog to wonder if their canine friend’s behavior really is couched in the motivations characterized here.
At the same time, Enzo is very aware of his limitations as a dog. He cannot speak. He does not have thumbs. He can’t help but feel enmity towards a stuffed zebra that he swears is out to get him. Sometimes these limitations are played for humor, but mostly it feels horrifically reminiscent of I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream. Denny suffers a truly demented onslaught of tragedy, and Enzo simply can’t do anything about it but watch with frustration while also being furry and adorable.
As I said before, this worked for me because I needed a good cry, but I don’t understand why someone would seek this out otherwise. The way this movie refuses to let up until the last few seconds is certainly impressive. It’s also borderline violent — it beat the tears out of me. To be fair, I am not the target audience for this sort of thing (I know my teenaged niece is very interested in it), so I guess there is an element out there that finds sadness for the sake of sadness to be entertaining. For them, this is certainly the ticket. Easily the hardest I have ever cried at a movie. I just wish it was for real, emotional reasons rather than the aggressive application of tried and true heartstring pullers. Sorry, heartstring yankers.
Also, Amanda Seyfried is in it. She’s quite good, as always, but she needs to be in better movies.
Note: In obtaining photos for this review, my tears were triggered again. That’s how thoroughly sad this movie is.
The Art of Racing in the Rain opens in Philly theaters tonight.