To say that a movie is “calculating” implies some sort of malevolence but of course, all movies attempt to elicit a response be it an emotional one, an intellectual one, or both. All movies are calculating.
Words are often imperfect representations of ideas and that is again the case with this particular word, “calculating;” it is meant to encapsulate a far larger notion, one that involves a phrase along the lines of “the movie attempts to tug at our heartstrings with no greater purpose than doing its damnedest to make us cry. It wants nothing else from us then our tears.” That phrase, like any other, is also not exact, but it comes close to what we mean when we say “calculating.”
With that in mind, let us address “The Art of Racing in the Rain” directly – the movie is a calculating one. Directed by Simon Curtis with a script from Mark Bomback and based on the novel by Garth Stein, the sole point of this film is to heap troubles on the main character in order to get the audience to cry. There is no larger purpose; there is no larger life lesson; and, to make matters worse, it undercuts its own goal due to its structure.
Milo Ventimiglia stars here as Denny Swift, a race car driver who is both apparently a great driver, unlike anyone people in the sport have ever seen, and also not good enough to really do it as a profession. Don’t think too hard about this inconsistency, it is unquestionably a rather large problem with the character, but it’s one the film never bothers to acknowledge, so may be better to just move on. Denny gets a dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), and the entire story is told from the dog’s point of view.
The audience then watches as the dog hates Denny’s new girlfriend/then wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried). Why anyone would think it remotely enjoyable to watch a dog complain for 20 minutes about his owner’s new love is not clear, but certainly the humor of the situation is worn out well before the movie moves on. Eventually there’s a daughter, Zoë(Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
It’s all nice and pleasant and mundane and lacking anything particularly funny, but that’s okay. It just kind of meanders. As it’s told in a flashback, we all know that we’re getting to a moment shown at the start of the film where Enzo is sick, but that’s in the future and the movie tells us multiple times that we shouldn’t think of the future, race car drivers don’t think about the past or the future, they live in the moment.
So, the moment meanders until it’s full of illness and death and ill-conceived custody battles and lies. The sole purpose of the film is to offer up a loving family that can then be torn apart in order for Denny to suffer for an extended period in the worst ways.
The deeper meaning? One would be hard pressed to find it.
This is a movie about living in the present. Or, it could be about living in the present except that the dog talks more than once about how he’s going to be human in his next life, and except that there are discussions of destiny.
This is a movie about the power of love. Or, it could be, except that the custody battle for Zoe and the relationships surrounding it are born out of an animosity that is difficult to reconcile with the notion of love.
This is a movie about car racing. Or, it could be, except that other than a few one-liners about racing and offering Denny as the greatest racer who never was, it has nothing to say about racing.
This is a movie about making the audience cry. Or, it could be… no, wait, that’s exactly what it is. However, even here it undercuts itself. The whole thing starts by telling us the dog is going to get sick and so, when he does, the impact is substantially less. What could have been a moment to push the audience over the top is just one everyone knows is going to happen.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” doesn’t offer deep characters. It regularly fails in its dog-based jokes. The dialogue written for Costner is regularly awful. No amount of gruffness in the actor’s voice can pull off some of the truly wretched lines. Denny could be a travelling circus clown for all the movie cares about racing. And as for crying, while there were assuredly some wet eyes during the press screening, the closest this reviewer, who is not afraid to cry during movies, came to shedding a tear was when the credits rolled, and that was from happiness.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox