The Art of Racing in the Rain could use a lot more racing

I hate myself for getting misty eyed in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The new film adapted from Garth Stein’s best-selling novel is so dumb and predictable that most of the audience could write the rest of the script themselves after watching the first 10 minutes. Lassie Come Home has the tension and intellectual wallop of The Third Man by comparison. But the movie is also fundamentally sweet—it is a Disney release after all—and laden with heart-tugs for anyone who has ever been nuzzled by their dog or forced to endure the funeral of a loved one.

Certain scenes are cinematic pepper spray; you just can’t help but tear up. Mercifully the crying spells are short, because the filmmakers avoid any real hard stuff in chronicling the travails of aspiring Formula 1 star Denny Swift (played by a dude’s dude, Milo Ventimiglia) as he and his deep-thinking dog, Enzo, attempt to climb racing’s greasy pole.

We’ve all become intensely wary whenever Hollywood decides to lay its stupefying mitts on our favorite subject. The list of epically bad racing movies is long and sordid. Even the ones we love, such as Steve McQueen’s seminal Le Mans (1970), with its lack of dialogue or any discernible plot, are deeply flawed. The chance for a truly great racing movie probably died with John Frankenheimer, the director of Grand Prix (1966) who seems to have taken the secret for deftly mixing storyline, character development, and riveting racing action with him when he passed in 2002.

So, put away any high expectations when shelling out your 12 bucks for this one-hour and 49-minute bag of doggie treats. Despite a lot of pre-release ballyhoo for renowned car cinematographer   Jeff Zwart’s contribution to filming the movie’s racing scenes, this ain’t Grand Prix. It’s not even Rush, director Ron Howard’s 2013 attempt to tell the Niki Lauda-James Hunt story without filming anything that looks like real racing. If anything, it’ll remind you of Al Pacino's Bobby Deerfield, a racing movie with a lot of melodramatic schlock and not much racing.

The Art of Racing in the Rain
20th Century Fox

As anyone who has read the book knows, the film’s central character and narrator is a hound, specifically Enzo, a canine racing fanatic who Denny bonds with instantly. He plucks little Enzo from a litter of pups who don’t make the cut presumably because they’re more interested in music or politics, and racer and race-dog start their life together. “Call it fate. Call it luck,” thinks Enzo to himself and the audience. “All I knew was that I was meant to be his dog.” Narrated by a gravelly voiced Kevin Costner, who sounds as if he embarked on a strict diet of Marlboros after making Waterworld, Enzo becomes Denny’s number one fan and supporter, barking joyously from the pits at his wins and fetching the TV remote in his mouth whenever Denny needs a pick-me-up by watching old reels of his hero, Ayrton Senna.

Why Senna? Because he was a master in the rain, of course. Like Senna, Denny is a rain master, something the big-league teams just haven’t come to appreciate about him yet as the film opens. Denny is plugging away, a journeyman driver in various IMSA support series and a racing teacher at a school near Seattle run by Don Kitch (a real person, here played by comic deadpan expert Gary Cole, criminally underutilized in his second racing flick after playing Ricky Bobby’s dad in the far more entertaining Talladega Nights).

Shortly after getting the one true dog of his life, Denny meets the one true love of his life, Eve. She’s a gorgeous, blonde, gold-hearted language teacher played by Amanda Seyfried, who looks and acts pretty much like she was built in the Hollywood cliché factory designated to make gorgeous, blonde love interests. And, well, in a movie laced with crying scenes, we know how that turns out.

The fact that actor and race driver Patrick Dempsey has a partial production credit should have boded well for the quality of the action sequences. Indeed, Dempsey was supposed to play Denny 10 years ago when he first optioned the book for production. But because it took so long to get this story to the screen, Dempsey could no longer pass as a young driver on the make. Ventimiglia, a veteran of TV and web-streaming series, was brought aboard—largely, it seems, for his passing resemblance to Dempsey. Rest easy, true Americans, Ventimiglia is from Anaheim, California.

The Art of Racing in the Rain
20th Century Fox

However, the best racing footage is cribbed from actual TV broadcasts. The stuff shot for the film, as it was in Rush, is made up of lightning-quick cuts punctuated by a shaking camera to denote speed, as if every racing car desperately needs to have its wheels balanced. If you are hoping for something like those long, loving shots in Le Mans, the ones down the Mulsanne Straight where the tension slowly builds as the onrushing cars are first seen and then heard in a gloriously rising wall of wail, forget it. Today’s directors don’t have the attention span for that stuff. All of the racing in Art is packaged into short sequences of these micro-second glimpses, as if filmed with an iPhone set on Live Photos mode. Thus, the film can more quickly move on to the melodrama.

Of which there is much in The Art of Racing in the Rain, involving lawyers, hospitals, court rooms, and lots of other places where there is no racing. We often see Denny leaving for a race or coming home from a race, but we are mostly denied seeing any of the actual race. Even the dog starts to get left home after the girl shows up. You’re entitled to wonder whether anyone goes to races anymore except the drivers and their teams.

Yes, Enzo gets in a few funny lines. And the film’s various tragedies and triumphs are rendered with a deft hand that avoids belaboring the emotion. We also get some on-screen action from a couple of Ferraris, no doubt in exchange for the use of their logos and some of their race cars in the production.

But, curiously for a film titled The Art of Racing in the Rain, the art of racing is pretty much shoved to the side, more told (by the dog) than shown by the filmmakers, who probably figured they needed to please the non-gearheads and dog lovers in the audience if they were to have any hope of making a buck.

The Art of Racing in the Rain
20th Century Fox