Swedish film director Lasse Hallstrom made a movie, released two years ago, called “A Dog’s Purpose.” In it we watched a dog go through several lifespans, always reincarnating and looking for his original owner (Dennis Quaid). The dog’s voice-over narration was spoken by Josh Gad.
Gad and Quaid were back for this spring’s sequel, “A Dog’s Journey.” Now in theaters is “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” another movie about rebirth, a narrator dog with personality and an original master who needs a mess of help to stand alone.
But “Racing” will remind older moviegoers even more of “Love Story,” the 1970 tearjerker which starred former fashion model Ali MacGraw and future “Bones” cast member Ryan O’Neal. “Love Story,” like “Racing,” offers its viewers a very simple and familiar plot.
And, also like the new film, “Love Story” depends on the ticket-holder’s willingness to accept that a father will destroy family relationships without fear of later repercussions. O’Neal’s character’s rich father tried to wreck his marriage because he thought his son had married beneath him.
Now, plot spoiler alert. Stop here if you intend to see either movie and want to be surprised by its formulaic developments. As if you could be surprised.
It is also true that both films are about the lingering death of the young wife. At least it is easier to like the young couple in the new film, race car driver Denny Swift (played by the thoroughly-grounded Milo Ventimiglia) and schoolteacher Eve (the accomplished Amanda Seyfried). Audiences watching “Love Story” may have hoped MacGraw would die a little faster. And that she’d take O’Neal with her.
To disguise the simplicity and familiarity of the plot, director Simon Curtis (the Brit who made “My Week With Marilyn”) starts off with the scene before the movie’s climax, then cuts back to the adoption (on a whim) of the golden retriever pup Enzo by the skilled but star-crossed driver. All the action until the last sequence is narrated by the dog (using Kevin Costner’s voice).
Zen Enzo believes he can imprint what he learns of life on himself in a way that will allow him in his next incarnation to remember the joy of car racing and the theory of driving in rain he has got from Denny. So the plot follows their relationship to see what all the dog will learn and what he is likely to remember when he is reborn as a human.
To fill up the time until the rebirth, we get a secondary story about Denny’s courtship and marriage, about the birth and growth of his daughter Zoe, and about the death of Eve and the lawsuit her parents file to take possession of their granddaughter.
That story works out just about as one would expect. And there aren’t really any surprises in the story about the dog, either.
But then none of these dog-consciousness movies are selling fresh thinking and original action. They are selling emotional responses. Go see “The Art of Racing in the Rain” if you want a good cry.
There is an audience for feelings-only stories. A large audience. Tearjerker lovers are something like horror movie fans. They want to feel something. If a movie can make them feel their tears well up, they’ll buy tickets. And they don’t seem to get tired of the same old methods for making them unhappy.
Paying to be made unhappy? That’s sort of like paying to hear a musical program one expects will be largely made up of ballads. Can we generalize about the people who want to be made miserable for a short time by movies, books or folk singers’ concerts?
There are some other ways that “Racing” is like “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey.” Each of them includes a few pretty images, always of landscapes. And the personalities of the canine narrators are made clear in all cases.
Ventimiglia and Seyfried and most of the minor characters — including one played by the great Gary Cole — have decent performances. But if you’re not one of those who seek pleasant misery in your entertainments, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is not going to be much more fun for you than would be “Love Story.” At least the new film doesn’t have that annoying theme song. That’s a plus.