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The Art of Racing in the Rain ••1/2

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Reel Heroes & Villains
Greg Smith & Scott T. Allison
Reel Heroes Volume 1

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Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kevin Costner
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Garth Stein
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: August 9, 2019

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, are you ready for the sequel to Riding in Cars with Boys? I think it’s called Riding in Cars with Dogs.


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Wait a minute — I thought it was Jerry Seinfeld’s show, Cars with Coffee Dogs and Comedians.  Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) who is an aspiring race car driver. He’s on his way to his next race when he stops to pick up a puppy whom he names Enzo (voice: Kevin Costner). They become inseparable buddies. Enzo accompanies Denny everywhere including the race track.


Enzo worships Denny and is a bit jealous when Denny meets and marries a woman named Eve (Amanda Seyfried). Soon the couple has a child named Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Everything is going well until Enzo “smells” something wrong with Eve, who begins having bad headaches. Soon Eve is diagnosed with terminal cancer.


Scott, I was really looking forward to this movie. It is based on the book by the same name by Garth Stein. The book was recommended to my by my daughter years ago. She knows my affinity for dog stories and any story about dads and daughters always pulls at my heartstrings. The book was amazingly good. But the movie – not so much.

The book and the movie are narrated by Enzo, the dog. This “unreliable narrator” is a wonderful device that gives the story both a naivete and humor that only a dog can offer. However, the movie does not follow the pacing of the book.

The movie moves along at a constant level of non-urgency – simply relating the events of Denny’s life. In the book, Eve’s death happens at about the 25% point in the story – which is very much the inciting incident of the story. However, Eve dies at the 75% point in the movie – making it the death or disappointment  or crisis of the story. This is when the grandparents decide to take Zoe away from Denny. This means that the entirety of the story between Denny and his daughter Zoe and their struggle to stay together is reduced to about 20 minutes of screen time. Much of the charm of the book is the love and fierce determination of Denny and Zoe to stay together. This is completely lost in the movie.

The performances are very good. I am a huge fan of Milo Ventimiglia (who played Peter Petrelli in the Heroes TV series). Costner as Enzo was a bit disappointing, however. He sounded very much like an aging Wilford Brimley with a monotone and little emotion. But this screenplay by Mark Bomback was lackluster, linear, and frankly, boring. I’ve seen Hallmark films with more heart.

The hero of the story is supposed to be Denny, but the way the story is told leaves nothing for Denny to overcome or learn. If you consider Enzo the hero, we have the same problem. This is a heroless story and so has little to offer us. Likewise, the message is completely unclear if present at all. All the philosophy of racing which we learn in the book, is lost. Such things as “your car steers to where your eyes look,” and “racing in the rain requires you to create the situation where you can succeed,” and others get a bare mention in the movie. The thing I love about sports films that inspire is they educate the uninitiated about how the sport influences the players’ lives. The Art of Racing in the Rain (the movie) is devoid of such mentoring. I was lucky enough to talk to a racing enthusiast after the showing I went to. He felt disappointed at the lack of racing in the film. I recommended he watch Ron Howard’s Rush. Despite my appreciation of novelist Garth Stein, I recommend you do the same.


Greg, I didn’t read the book and so, not surprisingly, my expectations for this movie were muted compared to yours. I actually enjoyed the film, although I’m concerned with Kevin Costner’s gravelly voice. Could someone please ask this man to gargle, just once?

We’ve seen movies like this before, movies like Homeward Bound, where the dog is the narrator of a heartwarming story of the relationship between dog and humans. The Art of Racing in the Rain follows this pattern to the letter, and adds some Zen-Buddhist philosophy into the mix. Throughout the movie we’re told all the many ways that life is like driving a racecar in the rain, and the analogy works well, except when it doesn’t. I’ve never heard any Buddhist worth their salt say that speeding as fast as possible through life, always on the edge of crashing, is The Way.

But there are several messages worth considering in the movie. One centers around the issue of how much control we have over our lives. Our hero Denny is a good man with talent who never seems to catch a break thanks to adverse forces operating against his control. Yet he claims to hold the secret of how to race his car effectively in the rain: “Anticipate the skid so you can control it” and “The driver has the courage to change his own conditions,” he says. We find out that this is easier said than done.

What we actually learn, IMHO, is that all of us need people to help us through the rainy days. Denny doesn’t extricate himself from his troubles alone. He receives help from friends, family, and a lawyer to get through the hard times. Even his dog Enzo helps him by ripping up a terrible custody agreement that Denny was about to sign. So this whole idea about there being an “art” to racing in the rain is really the art of navigating the hero’s journey – we do our best to steer our way through this tough world, we get beaten up, we get help, we transform, and ultimately we emerge a better, wiser person.

One idea I liked in this film was the idea that every once in a while an evil zebra shows up who can throw a wrench into our best-laid plans. The zebras in this movie are Eve’s parents who undermine Denny every chance they get and nearly succeed in taking his daughter away from him. But the problem is that for every message I liked in this movie, there was a message I disliked. For example, a troublesome message this movie tries to promote is that people and dogs don’t die until they’ve learned everything they’re supposed to learn in this lifetime. Tell that to babies who have died in plane crashes.


Well, that went dark fast. The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t as good as the book, but movies rarely are. However, in this case, that problem was completely unavoidable. Mark Bomback is a competent writer (having penned such scripts as The Wolverine, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Insurgent). But somehow with this film, like a bad marksman, he kept missing the target. I give The Art of Racing in the Rain just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Denny is portrayed as a faithful husband and doting father, so there is no transformation for him to be less dedicated to his sport and more dedicated to his family. In fact, Eve is his biggest supporter – pushing him to reach for his dreams and let her manage the family. Enzo is merely a narrator in this story, and not even a doggy-mentor (like A Dog’s Life – which we reviewed last month). I can only muster 1 Hero out of 5 for these guys.

Scott, I was glad that you extracted the messages from this movie that the book intended. I was disappointed that the messages were not more pronounced. As we’ve noted in our book Reel Heroes and Villains, it is sometimes prior teachers or a code of honor that is the mentor for the hero. In the book, it is prior great drivers and the philosophy of “racing in the rain” that guides Denny to successfully reuniting with Zoe. But I didn’t feel those messages were as prominent in this film. I give this incarnation of The Art of Racing in the Rain just 2 Message Points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:


Greg, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, despite having a problem with several of the messages about life that the movie was trying to convey. Perhaps I need to read the book to better appreciate the wisdom that I was supposed to glean from this story. What kept my rapt attention wasn’t any of the analogies to racing but rather the warm and wonderful characters. Enzo is an extraordinary dog with a huge heart. Denny is a good father and Eve is a wonderful mother, and all of these characters are doing their best in tough circumstances. The resolution of the problem worked fine for me – Eve’s mother, Trish, does the right thing by testifying that Denny has done nothing wrong and is a good father. Overall, I give this film 3 Reels out of 5.

So it’s quite possible that Trish is the hero – she’s the one who saves Denny and Zoe by turning against her evil husband. Her transformation is necessary for our protagonists to live happily ever after. But as you say, Greg, identifying the hero is no easy feat (or paw). Denny could be seen as the hero who prevails, and our beloved narrator Enzo, the dog endowed with reincarnation ability, is also heroic in traversing the dog’s journey, remaining loyal, sensing his calling to race cars, and doing the right things at a crucial time, i.e., chewing up the bad custody agreement. This is a heroic ensemble which I enjoyed considerably, and they deserve 4 Hero points out of 5.

I’ve mentioned the mixed messages of this movie, all centered around the issue of how much control we have over our lives. I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer which asks us to accept the things we cannot change, to have the courage to change the things we can, and to acquire the wisdom to know the difference. Perhaps this prayer is the overarching message of the movie. We do what we can, we let go of stuff we’re powerless over, and we learn hard lessons about what we can and can’t control. I give these mixed-messages a total of 3 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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