Sunday, August 11, 2019


Third time was the charm for 2019 to give us a passable based-on-a-book, narrated-by-a-dog drama. We simply had to go from bad to worse first. For those prone to lap up these stories of human dramas told from the perspective and through the words of twinkly wisdom spoken from the mind of a furry innocent, this has truly been a boomlet of cinematic pandering. However, even for those of us who don’t mind a little manipulation at the movies now and again, it’s been a bit of an endurance test to reap meager rewards. Still, now that we’ve finally trial-and-error-ed our way to a decent version of the concept, I’m more than ready to let it go.

First, January gave us A Dog’s Way Home, in which an adorable pup gets lost and homeward bounds back. Along the way, she (telling the tale in voice over from Bryce Dallas Howard doing what sounds like a Ginnifer Goodwin impersonation) meets a bunch of people in vignettes alternately heart-tugging and gently (ostensibly) comedic. She also, in the worst decision of the movie, becomes friends with a CG mountain lion. This passage is particularly bad, not merely for the obvious effect breaking the movie’s soft, boring realism, but for thinking its animated animal could stand up to scrutiny in a movie with a real dog dominating most scenes. Some of the scenes work well — I was particularly moved by Edward James Olmos as a man experiencing homelessness— but most slide by in a bland sludge.

Next, and worse, May’s entry in the mini-subgenre was A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, which started the whole trend with a puppy whose thoughts slobber out in the voice of Josh Gad. The hook of these films is a proposition that dogs remember their past lives as they reincarnate. Therefore, this pupper latches onto a formative owner — a cute boy who’ll grow up to be KJ Apa, then Dennis Quaid — and keeps looking for him even after waking up a new pup at the end of each lifetime. The initial movie worked its concept pretty well, but this follow-up is a sloppy flop —a procession of scenes so overwhelmingly sentimental and unrelentingly melodramatic that it gives both potentially reasonable qualities a bad name. It’s a cavalcade of yanking reaction shots and sudden tragic revelations that’d almost make The Room’s breast cancer news look natural. Once again a dog runs through a variety of owners, each with a button-pushing emotional arc that is overtly calibrated to make you cry when you’re not laughing at Gad’s badly scripted gags. It’s a painfully syrupy drama shot and staged like a sitcom. If it works for you, I’m glad for you, because it’ll spare you the exasperation I felt from the beginning to an end so loopy I had a hyperventilating giggling fit trying to explain it to someone after the fact.

So it doesn’t take much for The Art of Racing in the Rain to top those. It works where they fail because the story it tells is a simple, affecting family drama that doesn’t need to be gilded with CG sidekicks or clumsy falsehood conflict. In fact, it’s the only movie of the three that would work just as well without the dog at all. It even allows some of its most poignant scenes to play out without the canine chorus entirely, trusting in the heavy-lifting its cast can do. It’s the story of a would-be race car driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who falls in love with a beautiful English teacher (Amanda Seyfried) whose wealthy parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) don’t approve of him. Hardly groundbreaking narrative material, but the cliches pile up in satisfying combinations, and the complications of the couple’s life together feel drawn from a gentle spark of truth. It cycles through birth and death, illness and recovery, legal troubles and financial struggles, all cannily high-pressure emotional situations bound to hit close to home at some point and wring the tears. There’s nothing here that’s implausible, except, of course, for the constant commentary from his dog. Enzo’s the name, and he sagely intones with the growling gravitas of Kevin Costner’s voice. (His line readings are so deep and gravely here, I found myself occasionally wondering if he hurt his throat getting that grit in his vocal cords.) He begins the film near death, and then talks us through the narrative in a feature-length flashback, explaining why the thoughts of a bouncy puppy come to us with the molasses grandfatherly rumble of a wise old man. He’s far more thoughtful a dog than the others in films of this kind. He’s keenly aware of his limitations and is prone to comment on Mongolian philosophy and automobile techniques, and express a bittersweet sadness that he cannot share words with his human family to explain how much he cares for them. What an odd perspective, but an undeniably effective one, though it just as often underlines emotional subtext in scenes already so tenderly acted that it’s like a movie reading out its own CliffNotes over its action. Nevertheless, it’s all in what you compare it to, and here director Simon Curtis invests in the reality of his humans so fully that its winks of canine fantasy rarely get in the way if you give yourself over to it.

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