Movie Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Milo Ventimiglia and Enzo the dog

Milo Ventimiglia and Enzo the dog

Milo Ventimiglia and Enzo the dog

Milo Ventimiglia and Enzo the dog

Milo Ventimiglia and Enzo the dog

Denny’s family

Jeff Zwart, Patrick Dempsey and Milo Ventimiglia

Such happiness

To those who say Hollywood never gets racing right (except the movies “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans”), I say, they got the racing right in “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” In fact, the whole movie is based on, or was at least inspired by, the treatise of a real racer, Rolex Daytona 24 winner and racing coach, Don Kitch Jr. Racing sanctioning body IMSA explained it in an IMSA Wire Service story:

A document Kitch wrote long ago explaining ‘the mental and physical disciplines for drivers to become efficient driving a car in the rain’ not only helped racers become more prolific (I think they meant to say proficient) in wet race conditions, it inspired life lessons that led to the book and now the 20th Century Fox drama that premieres on Aug. 9.

Kitch operates ProFormance Racing School at Pacific Raceways, formerly Seattle International Raceway, in the Pacific Northwest. (Anyone who’s raced on it knows it is a really fun track in a beautiful location and it sure as heck rains a lot there.) Kitch raced at Daytona 20 times, winning the SRP II class in 2003. Kitch also has a big, sage golden retriever. When writer Garth Stein took a driving school from Kitch in 2001, met Kitch’s dog, and read Kitch’s paper, the wheels, so to speak, were set in motion.

First came the book, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for three years, then the movie, which opens Aug. 9. The movie took longer. Universal bought the rights to the book for racer/actor Patrick Dempsey, but couldn’t find a director. Then Disney got the rights. Then 20th Century Fox produced it. Unfortunately, Dempsey doesn’t star as the hero, but is listed instead as an executive producer. Maybe he aged too much over the ten years it took to get the movie made. While actor Milo Ventimiglia does a credible job, I gotta think racing fans would have appreciated seeing real racer Dempsey in the role. But what do I know about moviemaking?

Yes, the movie – Ventimiglia stars as Denny Swift (oy), a promising racer battling his way up the IMSA ranks. He starts in what looks like IMSA GTD, then works his way up to IMSA DPi and then, well, I won’t spoil it for you. The racing as presented is good, thanks to the involvement of racer/moviemaker Jeff Zwart. It’s not crazily overdramatized as often happens in lesser movies like “Spinout” starring Elvis Presley or The Big Wheel with Mickey Rooney or in any local news coverage of any crash at any race track. Here it’s straightforward and accurate.

It’s just that there isn’t enough of it. At least not for what I believe to be the average Autoweek reader. I wish I could have timed the total racing seen on screen during the film but I’m guessing it’s 10 percent or so. The rest of the two hours and 14 minutes is given over to The Drama. Stein based The Drama on what a friend and fellow racer was going through around the time that he, Stein, was writing the book. The antagonist in the movie uses a slightly different and more believable means to disrupt our hero’s life than was presented in the book, but otherwise the movie follows remarkably close to the book.

Oh, and the whole thing is narrated by a dog. You have to accept that. It may seem ludicrous but I have not yet met anyone who had any problem whatsoever with the whole story being told by a dog. This dog’s voice is done by the gravelly voiced Kevin Costner. The dog, named Enzo (just as Kitch’s real dog is named Enzo), explains right at the beginning of the movie that, although he understands everything going on around him, up to and including the thoughts and motivations of the humans he meets, and up to and including the Eastern philosophy of reincarnation, which he claims he saw on a documentary on TV, his dog tongue cannot form words and he therefore can’t discuss these topics at length with his human family. Like I say, no one I’ve met who ever read the book and the many people I know who have seen the movie had any trouble accepting this premise. I had trouble with it, but then I thought Mr. Ed the talking horse was some sort of flaming genius.

If you wanted to pick more nits with this movie you could say that it’s emotionally manipulative. Fans will say that it “tugs at the heart strings.” I say it’s like your old college roommate giving you a sob story before asking for a loan. But I think I’m too cynical.

Also, a club racer/local driving instructor couldn’t possibly live in such a beautiful craftsman house in the middle of Seattle with such lovely Mission Stickley furniture, even if you add in his wife’s income from teaching English as a second language, a field that might not pay very much, either. And maybe the villain’s premise is a little flawed in that it’s hard to picture someone being that mean just because his son in law isn’t rich, which seems to be the villain’s motivation. Plus, I had just as much trouble swallowing the ending to the movie as I did the ending to the book, but again, I am a mean, grumpy, cynical old geezer who doesn’t believe in anything. You are much younger and far more optimistic and will believe anything, even a non-talking dog who could easily be a professor of Eastern philosophy at a major university if only he could speak but chooses instead to say, simply, “Woof woof.” I mean couldn’t he bark once for yes, twice for no? Or tap out a message in Morse code? Or point at menu items with a single paw? No one else feels that way and in fact, everyone around me in the theater was whimpering and sniffling and wiping away tears throughout the film. But not me, dad gummit.

Nonetheless it is definitely a movie you, an Autoweek reader and probably real racer, will want to go see. The racing is excellent, though not in the same way the racing in Le Mans was excellent, but it is well worth seeing. And the rest of the movie, the non-racing part, will surely appeal to your date for the evening, who will marvel at your newfound “sensitivity.” Roll with it. Use it to your advantage. Be manipulative. Then go to the pound and adopt a dog. As Enzo would say, “Two paws up!” Or maybe just, “Woof.”

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