The IMDb synopsis for The Art of Racing in the Rain reads as follows: "Through his bond with his owner, aspiring Formula One race car driver Denny, golden retriever Enzo learns that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life." What this fails to clarify is why it would be important for a golden retriever to attain this knowledge.

Turns out that the movie has an answer, and it provides it right in the first scene. We see the 11-year-old Enzo, a grizzled old dog, lying in a pool of his own urine, thoughtfully reflecting on the implacable march of age and the death that comes for us all. Because, I guess, since we all know already that dog movies end with the dog dying, there's no real reason for the filmmakers not to just hammer us right in the face with it. Anyway, as the dog speaks to us in voiceover, supplied by the apocalyptically craggy old man voice of Kevin Costner, he informs us of his cosmology: according to certain Mongolian traditions (he picked this up from the television), dogs are reincarnated after death, and if a dog has learned enough of the ways of the universe at the time of any given death, it will be reincarnated as a human. To have the body of a human - to have the ability to grasp with an opposable thumb, and to speak with a dexterous human tongue, is Enzo's greatest wish, and as he considers that the impending passage of his soul from his failing body, he comforts himself with the believe that he may be reborn a human, so that he will finally be able to communicate his thanks and affection for his beloved human owner Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia).

So, I mean, if we're going to have multiple different films comparing the spiritual ontology of dogs, at least this one is gripped by a gloomy madness absent from the bubbly "dogs die and die and die and DIE" family film A Dog's Purpose. I'm not even sure if that's a good thing. But I will happily say that The Art of Racing in the Rain is by far the more ambitious, weird film, and if we can't have quality, ambition and weirdness will do in a pinch. For that matter, there actually is some quality here. Director Simon Curtis stages the various dogs playing Enzo with a great deal of deft technique, keeping the camera framed at canine level and cajoling some wonderful reaction shots from the animals. Editor Adam Recht then shapes those reaction shots into a fluid, natural array of glances, pauses, and sudden outbursts, and the end result of all of this is that Enzo feels like an honest-to-God character and audience identification point, and not just like a whole bunch of B-roll glued into narrative shape by having the soundtrack stitch it all together. I have not seen all of the shitty dog movies of the 2010s, but I have seen enough to feel some level of comfort in saying that this has some of the best craftsmanship the genre can display.

...good for them? Neat-o editing can get you to a certain point and no farther, and that point is somewhere in the jungle of mismatched concepts, themes, and tones that The Art of et cetera has the chutzpah to call a screenplay. As adapted by Mark Bomback from Garth Stein's 2008 novel - a book that has been quite the hot ticket for nearly all of the last eleven years - the film tells of how Denny adopts Enzo, falls in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and then they have a daughter, Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong for the largest part of her screentime). Eve's rich parents, Maxwell (Martin Donvan) and Trish (Kathy Baker) don't approve of Denny's lifestyle - he trains young race car drivers, while dreaming of Formula One stardom - and do everything in their power to drive a wedge between their granddaughter and son-in-law. This goes to some incredibly batshit places that involve a full-on switch of genre; two full-on switches of genre, in fact. Meanwhile, this is all told not merely through Enzo's words; not merely through his point-of-view, even; but strictly in terms of how all of this roiling domestic drama affects him personally. For he is a most reflective golden retriever, this one, and quite keen on guessing how inter-human squabbles might play out and where his role will be in all of this. Not bad considering that he at one point solemnly reveals that he's unaware that humans take showers.

Along the way, yes indeed, Enzo learns that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life. This largely comes in the form of platitudes that suggest that a lot more people than I realised are still 100% in the bag for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There is a certain undeniable pleasure in hearing Costner - whose voice got so damn old when I wasn't paying attention, unless he's just doing it as a bit - gravely play with parable-like aphorisms about racetracks, rain tires, and eyelines at top speed, exuding the curt wisdom of an exceedingly cranky old man who only refrains from being an asshole when you allow him to go on and on about the one subject he finds interesting, though his tone is still laced with suspicion that you're mocking him, somehow. And this pleasure is not lessened, only made ironic, when it is overlaid on thoughtfully-composed and tightly-edited footage of a dog squatting to leave a huge circle of diarrhea on a clean white carpet. An image that the filmmakers are very deliberate about keeping in the film, even after having used distressingly evocative sound effects to make sure we know what's going on.

The film is insanely serious, and preposterously melodramatic (the melodrama is mostly buried in the second half, behind enough spoilers that I can't bring myself to talk about them, even though I can't imagine anybody reading this actually cares about The Art of Racing in the Rain). When Enzo mindfully considers his feelings of jealousy towards Eve, it's kind of silly and loopy; when he reveals his awestruck shock and nearly spiritual joy at the smell of a human newborn, it's downright giddy, especially since Costner hasn't done anything to even slightly differentiate his line deliveries in these two moments. And when we add the pervasive death obsession that starts in the first scene and literally never goes away, it becomes almost as miserably profound as a 19th Century Russian novel - this is, I want to reiterate, in the story of a dog who's annoyed that his lack of opposable thumbs means that he can't become a race car driver. I'm three-times fucked if I can figure out who in the world this movie is for (children and families, ostensibly, but I would not want to be the parent in the car ride home trying to calm down the six-year-olds who've just been confronted with, like, three different forms of mortality), or why it was made with such delicacy and care in the face of such a howling abyss of a screenplay, but it's definitely unusual - even more unusual than "the movie that starts with a dog telling us its spiritual theories of the afterlife" would ordinarily prepare us for.