Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.
The first half of The Fundamentals of Caring is a breathlessly witty, almost flawlessly executed comedy starring two very funny men with excellent rapport. If the film had stopped at the 45-minute mark, and if the rest of it had then ceased to exist for some reason (gypsy curse?), forcing me to review only the first half, well, that would have been a glowing review, let me tell you.
The second half is still funny, but it’s hindered by some baffling, disappointing story choices that threaten to upend the whole thing. What began as an appealing two-character story gets loaded with extraneous, wacky side characters who bring their own subplots with them, cluttering up our perfectly good comedy. (One of them is a pregnant woman. You know what happens when you add an unnecessary pregnant woman to your movie? You also add an unnecessary childbirth scene!)
Based on Jonathan Evison’s novel (The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) and written and directed by long-time David Letterman producer Rob Burnett, the film stars Paul Rudd as Ben, a newly licensed professional caregiver seeking his first full-time client as he tries to escape the painful memories of his failed marriage. He gets Trevor (Craig Roberts), a horny, sarcastic 18-year-old with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and a tendency to treat caregivers like substitute teachers. Ben gets the job because he manages to answer with professionalism and aplomb Trevor’s questions about how he (Ben) will go about wiping his (Trevor’s) ass.
Trevor lives with his mother, Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), with whom she has a snarky, affectionate relationship; his father left 15 years ago, when Trevor was diagnosed. Trevor is bright but bitter. He doesn’t like to leave the house, doesn’t like to do anything but watch TV and make a map of lame roadside attractions that he’d semi-ironically like to visit. He gives Ben a hard time, but Ben is easy-going and unflappable. He’s Paul Rudd! He can’t be flapped. In one tight montage, Burnett shows Ben and Trevor bonding over their shared activities, and over their shared willingness to make jokes about Trevor’s disability. (This openness is both funny and endearing.)
With this semi-personal professional relationship established (Trevor often reminds Ben that the state’s paying him $9 an hour), the movie gets to its main point: ROAD TRIP! Seeking to shake Trevor out of his funk and quit wasting his life, Ben goads him into actually visiting some of those roadside attractions. This is no small undertaking: Trevor requires medication throughout the day and a CPAP machine when he sleeps. There’s also the bathroom situation, which is difficult enough at home, even trickier in public settings. Elsa is fretful, but she trusts Ben as a caregiver (and wants phone calls every three hours). If anything, she’s concerned that Ben will get too attached to her son, a constant risk in Ben’s profession.
Out in the world, Rudd and Roberts have even more opportunities to play off each other. Rudd is given freedom to riff in his inimitable Ruddian way, turning something as simple as trying to get finicky Trevor to eat a Slim Jim into a playfully irritating routine. And Roberts – star of Submarine (which you should see) and featured in Neighbors and 22 Jump Street – shows devastating comic timing in every scene.
The trouble begins when Ben and Trevor meet Dot (Selena Gomez), a self-consciously tough-talking teenage runaway who’s hitchhiking to Denver. The duo could use a foil, and Trevor needs a potential love interest, but Gomez is out of her league, constantly trying too hard at playing a character who is trying too hard. Not one profanity out of her mouth sounds like it came naturally.
She doesn’t detract much, though, and in Gomez’s defense, the character is not well-written. The detracting comes when, having already added one person to the road trip, Ben and Trevor collect a ditzy pregnant woman named Peaches (Megan Ferguson). Her only purpose in the film is a dubious one: to give Ben a sense of redemption when he heroically delivers her baby. His need for redemption is already a weak point in the story, and the specifics of this climactic scene are cringe-worthy. That’s not to mention the other characters from Dot’s and Peaches’ lives who get dragged into things, further diluting the Ben-and-Trevor story. How did something that began with such a sharp, unsentimental edge get so treacly? I’m not mad at you, movie, just disappointed.
Still, the constant hilarity of the first half and the less frequent but still potent hilarity of the second half are enough to outweigh the contrived, groan-inducing missteps. It’s further proof of the old adage that any film is made 50 percent better by casting Paul Rudd and someone who works well with him. Which is pretty much anyone. He’s Paul Rudd!
Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.