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‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ squanders its golden opportunity

Blessed with a wonderful dog and Kevin Costner providing his voice, the book adaptation goes for too many heart-tugging moments and a grossly shameless ending.

Enzo the golden retriever (voice of Kevin Costner) spends his life with an aspiring racecar driver (Mile Ventimiglia) in “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”
Twentieth Century Fox

“Nation’s Dog Owners Demand To Know Who’s A Good Boy” – classic headline from The Onion.

Even if you’re one of those humans prone to blurting out, “I’m not really a dog person,” you’re going to find it a challenge to get through “The Art of Racing In the Rain” without experiencing a lump in the throat and some watering of the eyes.

At times it feels as if the filmmakers watched all the “crying-est” dog movies ever, from “Old Yeller” to “My Dog Skip” to “Marley and Me” to “A Dog’s Purpose,” and collectively said, “Oh, we can go sadder than that!”

There’s no denying the emotional impact of many a scene in “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — some involving the incredibly empathetic golden retriever named Enzo who is our travel guide on this journey, some involving the people in his life. We’re instantly rooting for this wonderful dog and for the good and caring man who took him in as a pup and became his lifelong friend.

But when I say, “many a scene,” that’s not hyperbole. Eventually it felt as if we had been inundated with TOO many scenes designed and orchestrated to turn on the waterworks, to the point where even Enzo the dog seemed to be exhausted and ready to tap out.

Hey. If you kick off your movie with a moment that will have some viewers tearing up before they’ve taken that first dive into the popcorn, and you keep sprinkling even sadder developments throughout the film, you run the risk of wearing us out before the finish line.

Based on Garth Stein’s 2008 novel of the same name, which was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 156 weeks, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is the story of the talented but not quite star-level racecar driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) — as told from the viewpoint of Denny’s golden retriever, who has been named “Enzo” in honor of the legendary Italian automaker Enzo Ferrari.

For the live-action adaptation (written by Mark Bomback, directed by Simon Curtis), Kevin Costner voices Enzo — not in a “Lion King,” Enzo-can-talk kind of way, but as the narrator expressing Enzo’s thoughts and feelings and interpretations of events.

Costner’s voice is so instantly identifiable, it’s a distraction at first. (We can practically picture him in a sound booth, delivering his lines.)

Then again, who better to personify the folksy and warm, resilient and intelligent, immensely popular breed of the golden retriever than Kevin Costner?

From the moment when Ventimiglia’s Denny makes the impulsive decision to get a puppy, human and dog connect as kindred spirits. Denny is hoping to make the climb all the way to the elite Formula One class, and Enzo shares his human’s love and appreciation for racing — as a sport and as a metaphor for life.

For a while it’s just the two of them, best buddies for life, which suits Enzo just fine — but then Denny meets and falls in love with Amanda Seyfried’s Eve, a saintly schoolteacher who “isn’t really a dog person” (ahem), which is just fine by Enzo, because he’s not really much of an Eve person, at least initially.

Over the course of the next decade, as Denny experiences the highest of highs and the lowest of lows (professionally and personally), Enzo always has to be in the room, so to speak, because the entire movie is told from his point of view. Sometimes it makes sense for Enzo to be present. Nearly as often, it’s a real stretch.

We also experience some truly bizarre tonal shifts, e.g., Enzo’s hallucinogenic encounters with a stuffed zebra toy he believes is a demon. What might have worked as a prose metaphor becomes jarring and weird in the cinematic translation.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” also overplays its hand in the depiction of Eve’s father (Martin Donovan), a hiss-worthy villain so cartoonishly awful he would be booed off the set of a daytime soap opera.

Thanks in large part to Costner’s robust, earnest, growling, deadpan voice work as a dog who can be brilliant one moment and fantastically clueless the next, “The Art of Racing In the Rain” still comes close to winning us over …

Until the final scene, which was so shameless and manipulative, I wanted a refund on every lump in the throat and teary-eyed moment I had experienced to that point.