★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Simon Curtis
STARS Kevin Costner, Milo Ventimiglia

No longer content to dance with wolves, Kevin Costner now dances with dogs as he essays the leading role in The Art of Racing in the Rain.

Costner contributes the voice of a magnificent Golden Retriever named Enzo, whose owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) is a race car driver perpetually waiting for his big break. Enzo provides the film’s voice-over narration — and astute commentary — as he witnesses Denny fall for and marry Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and watches as they welcome their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong in later scenes) into the world. After this comes a frenzy of cancer scares, custody battles, and run-ins with a satanic zebra doll.

Even dog lovers (raising my hand here) and specifically Golden Retriever owners (ditto) might balk at the clumsy nature of this adaptation of Garth Stein’s novel. Costner’s soothing drawl works well when Enzo is being philosophical but proves less than ideal when the pooch gets sentimental or discusses his encounters with that psychotic zebra (these scenes are the worst in the entire picture). Eve registers as nothing more than a plot device — and not always the most sympathetic one, at that (even as someone who’s initially revealed as not very interested in dogs, her carelessness with Enzo in a later scene is, at best, illogical and, at worst, unforgiveable).

Ultimately, the movie gets bogged down in tiresome squabbles between Denny and his in-laws (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker), culminating in a courtroom sequence of astounding stupidity. And where’s Enzo in all this? He’s back on the couch, thinking excitedly about the day after he has passed on that he can come back as a human. That’s right: The movie’s shining message is that noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing dogs can only be improved by becoming sinful, shallow, stupid human beings. This brutal and depressing notion brings new meaning to the term “animal cruelty.”

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