Based on the novel of the same name by Garth Stein which spent three full years on the New York Times best seller list, "The Art of Racing in the Rain" is the resounding positive answer to the generations' old question asked by parents from sea to shining sea: "Why doesn't Hollywood make good family films?"
If you consider superhero marathons and cutesy animated fluff to be more than enough to bond your brood in front of a silver screen, "Rain" might be either too homespun, corny, arcane, depressing or, yes, maybe even too high-concept.
To wit -- Kevin Costner narrates the story from the perspective of Enzo, a golden retriever. He doesn't "talk" to humans or other animals ("Look Who's Talking"), nor do the filmmakers manipulate the live-action dog's mouth to simulate speech (the recent remake of "The Lion King"). Enzo describes his life with race car driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia, "This is Us") -- while never referring to him as his "owner" or "master" but rather his "friend" -- with astounding familiarity and assumed matter-of-fact simplicity.
This stunningly basic choice by Stein (or maybe screenwriter Mark Bomback, the recent "Planet of the Apes" trilogy) immediately lends the narrative off-kilter intimacy and a Zen-like approach. This is not to imply that Enzo speaks in platitudes or with lofty pretentiousness but rather plain, wry observation. Costner hasn't been this interesting since his role as an affable serial killer in "Mr. Brooks" from 2007.
The journey of Enzo and Denny isn't unlike that any other in dog/human cinematic history. They jog, watch TV together (mostly rebroadcasts of old auto races) and just hang out with Enzo enjoying the dream canine life, that is until SHE (Amanda Seyfried as Eve) arrives on the scene.
Meeting "cute" at a trendy Seattle market, Denny and Eve have instant chemistry (he invites her to a Soundgarden cover band show featuring his friends) and in no time flat they are an item. Enzo is understandably jealous and leery of Eve but, being a dog with ample ability for leeway, gives her the benefit of the doubt (as if he has a choice).
In carefully scripted cinematic minutes, years pass, Eve is part of the family and will soon give birth. Enzo is suspect but greets everything as a matter of course and he soon is loved by Eve and especially by daughter Zoe (played by a multitude of performers).
The dramatic friction begins with the introduction of Eve's father Maxwell (Martin Donovan), an uptight rich blowhard who looks down on Denny because he's an athlete who could die at any moment, as he races cars for a living. Maxwell's wife Trish (Kathy Baker) shares her husband's concerns to a degree yet still warmly embraces Denny and - this is paramount - respects her daughter's decision.
From this point forward, "Rain" morphs from a slightly edgy "Hallmark" drama into full-blown, semi-thriller, courtroom territory. The roles of all of the principal characters (including the child Zoe and Enzo) take on new meaning and weight. Events transpire which change the entire complexion of the narrative and for a good, long stretch turns the film into something altogether unexpected and dark.
"Rain" is one of those "the journey is the destination" sort of movies. It is eminently clear that director Simon Curtis (the odd but interesting "My Week With Marilyn" and the huge misfire "Goodbye Christopher Robin") prefers fantasy and something resembling fantasy revisionist history and he takes many narrative chances with "Rain." He, Stein and Bomback have turned the tired "shaggy dog" genre on its ear and have made something which can simultaneously appeal to the emotional and cerebral sides of the brain.
If it went through another edit and had five or so minutes trimmed from the softer mid-section it would be flirting with family film perfection and is the best of its kind since "My Dog Skip" from 2000.
From the start, it's clear Enzo's journey will have a beginning, middle and an end and we will be privy to tropes we've seen hundreds if not thousands of times before. Dogs haven't received the endearing label of "man's best friend" without significant reason. Canines, felines and perhaps to a lesser degree -- birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles and all other possible domesticated animals - for multiple reasons -- grab our hearts and refuse to let go.
We love these other examples of God's handy work as if they are parts of us and in doing so, we grow more humane and become better humans.
"Rain" won't work for everyone -- and that includes some people who share their living space with other non-humans and couldn't imagine their lives without them. This movie is life itself. There is birth, living and death. You make the most of it while you can and hope there's something else waiting for you on the other side. "Rain" is a bittersweet affirmation of life which will give your soul reason to rise up.