Ventimiglia and friend: If only dogs could drive! And also make movies.
20th Century Fox
August 8, 2019 5:34 AM EDT

The best thing about a story narrated by a dog? At least someone has common sense. The soul of The Art of Racing in the Rain, adapted from Garth Stein’s 2008 novel, is Enzo, a canine with golden fur, soulful eyes and a way with words; his bons mots of shaggy wisdom come to us in the voice of Kevin Costner. Since puppyhood, Enzo has belonged to Denny (Milo Ventimiglia, of This Is Us), a Seattle race-car driver who’s good at what he does yet is only inching toward his big break. When Denny falls in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and starts a family, pressures mount. His rich, stuffy in-laws (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) don’t like him much. Then his life with Eve takes a devastating turn. Enzo–named after legendary Italian racing star Enzo Ferrari–witnesses it all, peppering his observations with racing argot he’s picked up from his owner, as well as snippets of wisdom he’s learned from one of his favorite activities, watching TV.

It could all be so winsome and adorable–but it isn’t. Animal lovers should know that nothing terrible happens to Enzo, though there are two close calls; they’re conveniently willed into being by some highly unbelievable negligence on the part of Denny and Eve, who otherwise seem completely devoted to Enzo. But the big problem with The Art of Racing in the Rain–directed by Simon Curtis, whose last movie was the surprise delight Goodbye Christopher Robin–is that it’s nearly impossible to care about any of the humans. For a guy with a job that almost no one on the planet has, Denny is shockingly dull, and Ventimiglia fails to vest him with even an iota of personality. The generally charming Seyfried is saddled with a bum role that mostly requires her to suffer beatifically, and Donovan and Baker, both marvelously subtle actors, are badly suited to playing monsters-in-law.

But Costner as Enzo? Now that’s a stroke of genius. Enzo’s phrasing, thanks to Costner, is an easy-on-the-ears drawl; the texture of his voice is pleasingly rough, like a bit of fur that’s been slightly ruffled by the removal of a bothersome burdock. And everything he says and does makes sense, at least in dog logic. Meanwhile, the humans around him have lost the plot. Unfortunately, they’re the ones in charge of pouring out the kibble.

This appears in the August 19, 2019 issue of TIME.

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