Thoughts

Film breakdown: The Art of Racing in the Rain

August 9, 2019

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t watched the film or read the book and care about either, stop reading here.

Preamble

In mid-June of 2008, I had an interview with a nearby Starbucks, back when Starbucks featured and sold books. I saw this book, with this title that instantly caught my attention, because I have racing in my blood…and this dog below it on the cover. One hell of a juxtaposition. I had some time to kill, so I picked one up.

The interview was standard: I was dressed in haphazard business casual, I don’t like coffee, I didn’t get the job, and two months later the location would close and I’d find the manager who interviewed me, now unemployed, talking to her mom on the phone while I was on my shift at the OfficeMax up the street. But I stuck around, because…well, you see, I had to finish the book.

If you’re reading this and you know me, I have already told you to read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I may have bought it for you. It’s my spiritual guide; it’s vital to my being. I am as intensely passionate about this story as I am about anything.

Naturally, the film comes out today—August 9, 2019—and I found a theater nearby showing it early, because despite my concerns I couldn’t wait. I’ve been waiting for this film for 11 years, knowing what wonderful potential it has for the silver screen.

That doesn’t mean I went in naïve.

Screenplay and adaptation

As books go, this book is incredibly hard to adapt. The upfront premise—a dog so sapient he could write a doctor’s thesis if he had opposable thumbs—is deep into metaphysical territory, but this conceit makes you gloss over the essence of the story: The Art of Racing in the Rain is first a philosophical treatise on existence and the hero’s journey told through motorsports metaphors and alien observance, and second an SVU-esque family legal procedural.

Unfortunately, the marketing did betray the truth: This production team thought it was, really, just another dog story.

The book has roughly three acts: Enzo’s early life and Eve’s death; Denny getting framed and dealing with the fallout, ending with Enzo rejecting the settlement; and the trial, climax, and epilogue. Denny’s in-laws (the Evil Twins) coerce an underage relative to seduce Denny and isolate him so they can set him up as a sex offender, giving them full custody of Denny’s daughter. I have no issues with the plot on its face—as unlikely as that is to occur in reality, art is allowed to be controversial—but I definitely have issues with how it can be coopted by MRA shitheads, so that’s enough reason for me to have no problem with the film pursuing an alternate legal plot.

They took Annika out entirely and went with fourth-degree assault.

In my cursory searching, fourth-degree assault in Washington state is a misdemeanor, the lowest degree of the charge, the most common assault charge in the state, and does not on its own materially impact custodial rights. Given that Denny is the biological parent, and the Evil Twins otherwise have no guaranteed or reserved custodial rights, they’d still have a hell of a time convincing a court that Maxwell serving Denny with a frivolous suit and then baiting him into a minor scuffle is enough to hand any custody over.

They went with the most piddling charge possible, and in doing so, sucked every fucking ounce of urgency from the plot for the rest of the film. Key example: Denny still struggled to keep up with his attorney’s fees and still had to keep a $20 for gas when paying less than half of Enzo’s post-car-crash vet bill, but the whole point in the book was that the Evil Twins were starving him of jobs and the mechanic gig was not even close to enough. These scenes felt like references, footnotes, not windows into Denny’s desperation to “stick [another finger] into the leaking dike.”

In the book, Enzo sets the whole thing up by literally framing Denny’s story as the hero’s journey.

The sun rises every day. What is to love? Lock the sun in a box. Force the sun to overcome adversity in order to rise. Then we will cheer!

This is what made the book compelling, and this is what the film took out.

Sidebars regarding the adaptation:

Acting

I was skeptical of Milo Ventimiglia’s casting, but early in the film I realized why he was cast: he passes for a younger Patrick Dempsey.

Jokes aside—he really does though—Milo did a pretty damn good job. I didn’t think he was too wooden or too melodramatic; he played the role he was given, and he played it well. Amanda Seyfried was a fantastic casting of Eve, and she nailed her performance too.

The accolades continue: Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker, playing the Evil Twins, quite possibly steal the show in their scenes. All the Zoes were great Zoes. The rest of the supporting cast was as fantastic if also more subtle: Mark Finn, the attorney; Gary Cole, playing Don Kitch (a real well-known owner of a racing school, and Garth Stein’s instructor); the roles of Luca Pantoni and the Italian father and child (they cast the child perfectly); even the kid driving the car that Enzo runs in front of. All really great, serviceable at absolute worst.

And then there’s Kevin fucking Costner phoning it in with his best Clint Eastwood-on-a-chair impression.

Did anyone try to direct him? Every one of his lines as Enzo completely overpowers the film and reads like he’s doing dramatic trailer voiceover.

They should have grabbed Christopher Evan Welch’s excellent audiobook reading, taken his lines as Enzo, and just stuck them into the goddamn film. Hopefully someone will try to do that when the movie is released digitally, and I guarantee it will be a tenfold improvement at minimum. May Welch rest in peace—this was his role.

Music

I looked up Hauschka after learning he was scoring the film, and fell in love with his work pretty quickly, especially his own albums. Too bad I couldn’t really pay attention to it because I was getting whisked from scene to scene like a Music City Miracle re-enactment. A piece played early in the closing credits that sounded fantastic and unfamiliar, so hopefully this score will be released at some point so I can enjoy it properly.

Lots of classic rock was sprinkled in. I’m a fan, broadly, but wasn’t in the mood to properly assess whether each song was right for their scenes.

Production

The editing kills this film.

The official runtime is 109 minutes. It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like 80, maybe. And it’s not like the credits are long.

The editors power you through this film. They want you to see the book, and then get out. Here, you want this scene and this scene and this scene, right? Fetch!

All but three or four scenes feel rushed. The entire film feels more breathless than Denny’s late-night stint at Daytona would have been. Being that this is, first, a meditative philosophical treatise, it demands room to breathe and the editors, nor anyone else on the production team, desired to give it that space.

The paint-by-numbers cinematography—here’s a book with some sad scenes, plug it into the machine and dump the results—do not help the rushed pace. It needs visual space, wide distant moody fixed shots, as much as it needs to be slower. Even twenty extra minutes would have done something to improve the situation, giving more time for contemplative angles and more ways of showing intimate conversation besides face-to-face cuddling.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, there’s two small scenes and one big omission that sum up this film for me.

The first: On Zoe’s first day of kindergarten, Denny takes her to the bus stop and they do first-day-of-school-at-the-bus-stop things. Another father makes small talk with Denny and a tenuous relationship is established. After a period of time, other father asks Denny where his wife is—”Your wife works?”—and after Denny tells him the situation, they never speak again. Cancer is a particularly lonely disease, and outsiders don’t want to jump into the emotional miasma.

How does the film handle it? Other father makes small talk with Denny. Zoe says her mother is brain sick. Other father slinks away like Homer into the fucking bush. Ten to fifteen seconds. For what payoff?

The second: Denny and Enzo, on the couch, watching another race—the 1989 Luxembourg Grand Prix, in which Irish driver Kevin Finnerty York battles a busted gearbox for the last 20 laps and wins.

There was no Luxembourg Grand Prix in 1989 (there have been Luxembourg Grands Prix in modern F1, but not that year). There is no Irish F1 driver named Kevin Finnerty York: Kevin York is one of Garth’s racing friends—they met at Kitch’s school—whose own wife’s battle with cancer is a large part of the inspiration for the book. Drivers have won races with hampered gearboxes, but this anecdote has no basis in a real event. This was purely for Garth to pay tribute to his friend and build the philosophy.

They kept this in the film, almost verbatim.

But…

That last thing, that omission, I didn’t realize right away.

The car goes where the eyes go. La macchina va dove vanno gli occhi.

That’s the line. It was said…twice? And they, instead, bizarrely, tried to push a variation of “you can’t win in the first corner” as the catchphrase.

As much as it’s essentially The Secret–type bullshit when applied to life, it’s also a true and extremely important lesson for racing, and therefore the story gets away with it. But they all but strip it from the film, including in the epilogue, its last beat intended to be the real tearjerker.

The car goes where the eyes go, and the production team got loose on corner exit and couldn’t stop staring at the wall.

I truly believe that most of the team loved the book and the author and wanted to honor and do right by them. They made so many callouts to specifics, and stayed true in so many ways, that I couldn’t help but fistpump at times. But this film demonstrates the worst tendencies of Hollywood’s adaptation process. As they say, there’s a good film here somewhere, but this ain’t it.

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