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Paul Rudd has a way about him that has, from his very first film, been ingratiating. He pulls us in, no matter the genre. We become absorbed with his characters, invested in their arc. Think of his romance with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in 1995’s Clueless, or his funny but genuine Peter Klaven in I Love You, Man (2009), not to mention his recent career-defining role as Scott Lang in Marvel’s Ant-Man. No matter the quality of the film, Rudd seems immune to a bad performance. The same goes here as he effortless carries this film despite the contrivances and all too clichéd story.
That story revolves around Trevor (Craig Roberts), a disillusioned, bitter 18-year-old boy afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s recently moved to the United States with his mother from England and needs a caregiver. Enter Ben (Rudd). He’s suffering from a deeply personal tragedy, and his wife is seeking a divorce. Working to overcome this period, he focuses his energy on taking care of someone in need. He learns the basics, an acronym: ALOHA (Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, Ask Again). If you think this is a bit rudimentary, you’re right on target with the film’s message. Either way, Ben is in. Trevor becomes his first case. Naturally, when they meet, Ben seems completely wrong for the job and Trevor’s mom thinks it won’t work. Trevor however, wants him. End of discussion.
After a few weeks as the two become closer, Ben learns of Trevor’s map of American oddities, such as the world’s largest cow and the deepest pit. The two scheme to go on a road trip and eventually Trevor’s mother agrees. Along the way, they pick up a runaway hitchhiker named Dot (Selena Gomez) and then a pregnant woman named Peaches (Megan Ferguson). As the miles pass behind them, each find ways to heal.
Written and directed by Rob Burnett, The Fundamentals of Caring takes its title to heart and pulls no punches as it goes for the emotional juggler. While Trevor is an interesting character, he is two-dimensional, a plot device for Ben to breakthrough his own depression. Each manipulated step is carefully designed to bond the two men, but more importantly, to free Ben of his one haunting demon. That demon is mentioned several times, and we are treated to blips of a flashback that are meant to tell us the whole story even though at the start of the first one, we already know. How do we know? Because, like nearly everything in this movie, it’s been done countless times before. There are no surprises.
The thing about Trevor is he’s a sarcastic, foul-mouthed, angry teen because of course he is. That’s what screenwriters do with disabled teens. Trevor tries to shock Ben (and us by extension). His first question to Ben is if can he handle wiping his ass. Fine. Then he goes on to say that he wants Make-A-Wish to get him a blowjob from Katy Perry. He then proceeds to keep pretending he’s choking. Certainly none of these are things that a person confined to a wheelchair might not want or do, but here, all feel false, like they are trying to press all the buttons. When the ending comes, and we get closure on a few of these build ups, it feels unearned.
That’s not to say Roberts, who is not disabled, isn’t good. He’s witty and convincing, but lacks depth. We are never really given entrance into the real challenges of what it would be like to truly care for Trevor. The wiping his ass thing becomes a slow cooker joke and a dream to pee standing up becomes an epic journey of trial and error, leading to a regrettable moment that tries very hard to be bigger than it is. The music alone in this scene is so over-the-top, it’s nearly comical.
Gomez is very well-cast and shows some grit as a tough as nails girl on the road. She has a real charm about her and dismisses any criticism that she doesn’t belong in front of the camera. Truthfully, her story might actually have been a more interesting one. But it’s Rudd who saves the day. Without him, this movie would sink. Fan or not, it’s a good performance and one worth seeing. If anything, it’s frustrating to think about how much better he’d be in a film that truly pushed him. Here, everything is played too safe. It sticks to the fundamentals.
Director: Rob Burnett
Writers: Rob Burnett (screenplay), Jonathan Evison (novel)
Stars: Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Paul Rudd, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Ehle