Why is it our “sentient dog” movies always feature either retrievers or Chihuahuas as their protagonists? I’ve yet to see a film explore the idiosyncrasies of the Chinook breed, or the neuroses of the Lagotto Romagnolo. This might seem like a moot point. It’s worth questioning, however, why THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, the new melodrama vehicle for puppy fetishism and, inexplicably, Kevin Costner, chose to cast the canine star—an intelligent, supercilious pooch named Enzo—as a handsome Golden Retriever, when everything about the character screams 4chan message boards and supremacist manifestos.
The movie has been grounded in developmental hell since 2009, a year after the book on which it’s based reached New York Times bestseller hegemony. Confounding, since the source material is the kind of inoffensive schmaltz which seeds itself in the viewer like an opulent tapeworm and by film’s close is swiftly evacuated, provoking no long-term damage, impact, or reflection. And I like dog movies. 2008’s MARLEY AND ME is an excellent treatise on bourgeois malaise masquerading as kiddie fare, and even last year’s DOG DAYS was a very charming and funny ensemble piece. The problem with RAIN (at least, one of them) is author Garth Stein’s prose, which strains for intelligence yet frequently resembles that of a high school English teacher’s rejected third manuscript.
You gotta hand it to Enzo, the guy is a cutie pie
Stein writes Enzo with a certain pompousness and lets the dog use words like “polysyllabic” and “recessed.” This opens up the narrative to numerous gaps in logic: if Enzo, the perceptive pseudo-psychologist that he is, understands everything which goes on around him, why commit to utter subservience? What stops Enzo from claiming autonomy from his racecar-driver master, Denny (an agreeable Milo Ventimiglia)? Well, maybe it’s that Enzo is unambiguously in love with Denny, saying things like “I was meant to be his dog,” and repeatedly soliloquizing about how “heavenly” the race track Denny effortlessly conquers is.
When read with an unintentionally hilarious, solemn earnestness by Costner, these lines take on a distinctly homoerotic tension (many will try to deny this, citing “wholesomeness,” which requires one to be so disconnected from reality so as to be a holographic cosmonaut), which reaches its apex when Eve (sigh) enters the picture—Amanda Seyfried, in a role so thankless it’s hard to believe she wasn’t blackmailed/doxx-threatened into it. A reverse-Oedipal conflict emerges, with Enzo wanting Denny all to himself, and bearing considerable enmity toward Eve, whom he sees as disrupting the natural order of things. Enzo comments on Seyfried’s buttocks and her “grooming,” while resenting her for stealing Denny’s attention away from him.
We’re left to watch as Enzo’s desire is stymied by Eve’s increasing presence in Denny’s life and things continue to grow more unbearable for the dog. Enzo becomes, in effect, a cuck.
The affection is definitely not reciprocated
Shots from Enzo’s POV depict Denny and Eve’s sexual encounters, the pooch’s face drooping as he tippie-toes away. A braver film would’ve examined critically Enzo’s rage at the woman Eve, who seems to represent for Enzo the exact frivolousness he so despises in other dogs, toward whom he affects an air of superiority, believing himself to be a more evolved being. If the incel is chronically dissatisfied with his lack of sexual gratification, and if this frequently manifests itself in virulent misogyny, then Enzo’s plight makes perfect sense. The canine’s psychic devastation even actually brings about a literal psychotic break after being left alone in the house for 40 hours (a scene contrived for comedy but which ends up just plain disturbing, especially with the blatant animal abuse, a fact the film hurriedly glosses over). Who is responsible for Enzo’s quarantine? Eve.
Enzo’s intuition detects something (physically) troubling in Eve, yet the dog refuses to raise alarm over the fact. Eve is a nothing character, deployed and dispatched off in a shockingly casual manner. The movie claims to be from Enzo’s POV but this is contradicted numerous times in the diegesis by scenes of which Enzo is not a part, so the misogyny cannot be justified. This is to say nothing of the plot digressions, which are exhausted, or the technical credits; photography and editing work are dire. The picture is ostensibly a period piece (I know this because at one point we glimpse a Sony VAIO laptop—remember those?) but it is, of course, completely divorced from any socio-political context. I confess, it would’ve been nice to hear Enzo’s take on, for example, the 2008 recession or the Occupy movement. As it stands, Enzo can only comment on his own impotence.
Maybe it’s good Enzo is a Golden Retriever. If he were a Chinook, or a Lagotto Romagnolo, or a Weimaraner, I doubt we’d be as forgiving.