No spoiler here: The book is better, by far. So if you read and loved Garth Stein’s 2008 mega-bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain, you are going to have to decide, are you one of those people who know that the book is better going in, and still see it anyway, or are you someone who doesn’t want your cherished reading experience tarnished by a decent but not particularly masterful movie?
I am of the former tribe, someone who almost always prefers the book to the movie (except in the case of Crazy Rich Asians, wherein the movie was far superior to the book), yet I still like to see what filmmakers will do with a book I loved. For example, I enjoyed the recent film Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but the movie version came nowhere close to capturing the heart and soul of the book.
And I, like a million others, did love “Rain,” the story of a good guy with a great dog who dreams of being a success driving racecars in Formula One, falls in love with a sweet woman and fights off bad guys who want him to fail. I am still amazed that I did love a book wherein Formula One racing figures so prominently. Eleven years after the book topped the New York Times bestseller list for 156 weeks, filmmakers finally came out with the movie version, starring This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia as Denny Swift.
A book I adored starring a guy from my favorite TV show? It sounded like a sure-fire hit for me and scads of other fans, not just of the book but of the affable Ventimiglia. Indeed, the actor plays a role here so like Jack Pearson it’s hard to separate the two characters.
This story is narrated by Enzo (voiced by a gravelly, homespun Kevin Costner), a sweet Golden Retriever named after Enzo Ferrari of Ferrari car fame. When the movie opens, he’s already so old and declining that he is lying in a puddle of urine on the floor. Poor baby! But then his story rewinds, and we meet him as a frisky puppy, being selected by Denny. As the years unspool, Denny and Enzo are two peas in a pod until Denny falls in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried), “not a dog person” but then again Enzo is not “an Eve person.” (The two do end up bonding sweetly, so no need to hate Eve.)
Nor is Enzo a person period, though that’s hard to remember in such an anthropomorphic movie. “Is this movie some kind of ‘Air Bud’ thing?’ my long-suffering husband asked early on. Not exactly, though the dog is practically human.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is much sadder, for one thing. Think Old Yeller meets Sad Cancer Movie meets Formula One. After Denny and Eve have their baby girl, sad things start to happen, and Eve’s parents, played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan, begin to behave badly. Actually, her father behaves so boorishly and is so unredeemable that he may as well be a cartoon character. Him you can safely hate.
Along the way, you will have many occasions to root for Enzo and his good, kind owner. The extent to which you are a dog person may determine how many tissues you use during this movie. Or you may sense things are a bit too orchestrated to make you cry. The emotional scenes feel heavy-handed at times.
Still, if you love dogs and the Garth Stein novel and Milo Ventimiglia, or even two out of three of those, you will still appreciate “Rain” for what it is: A heartwarming tearjerker about a good man and his great dog. But read the book first. It truly is a wonderful reading experience. (20th Century Fox, now streaming)