In all honesty, most people will decide whether the tearjerker family drama “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is their kind of movie based on two bits of information: The story is told by the family dog, and that dog is voiced by Kevin Costner.
Dog people will be on board. Everybody else, you’re on your own.
The dog is a labrador named Enzo, named by the man who adopted him, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), for the founder of the Ferrari company. Denny is a race-car driver, and he takes Enzo along to hang out in the infield while he races. Enzo loves the track, and also loves hanging at home with Denny, watching racing footage on TV and learning every trick Denny knows about going fast and outmaneuvering the elements.
As Denny works to build his racing career, life takes him in directions he and Enzo never expected. One of those directions is Eve (Amanda Seyfried), for whom Denny falls instantly, even though on their first meeting she throws up a big red flag: “I’m not really a dog person.” Denny replies, “That’s OK, Enzo’s more person than dog.” In short order, Enzo sees that two creatures in an apartment becomes three — and, after marriage, four, with the arrival of a baby girl, Zoe.
Enzo declares, to us if not to his family, that his purpose in life is to protect Zoe and Eve from harm. That pledge becomes difficult to honor, particularly when Eve starts to become ill — something Enzo can smell before any of the humans around them, but which the audience detects even sooner based on Eve’s conspicuous aspirin consumption.
Director Simon Curtis (“Goodbye Christopher Robin”) and screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) adapt Garth Stein’s 2008 novel as a series of tragic vignettes. Each step of the Swift family’s journey is fraught with drama and sadness, and Enzo steadfastly observes the foibles of human existence through disease, death, legal conflict and resolution.
Nothing will deny the four-hankie waterworks Stein’s story sets out for us — but Costner’s gruff, no-nonsense narration comes close to cutting through the manipulations. That down-home voice, capturing Enzo’s devotion and his dream of being reincarnated as a human, makes “The Art of Racing in the Rain” more palpable than this emotional ride probably should be.
‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’
Opens Friday, August 9, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for thematic material. Running time: 109 minutes.