The Fundamentals of Caring – 2016
Written and Directed by Robert Burnett
Starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Frederick Weller, Bobby Cannavale, Julia Denton
The concept of caring for the disabled is a tricky one to capture in story form. I experienced it first hand in my teenage years, and one of my best friends, The Grouchnapper worked in the field for years. It is routinely monotonous at best. It is a nightmare for the afflicted and their assistant at worst.
Trying to express the field of caretaking as any sort of comedy should be difficult if you are angling for any sort of authenticity. If you get the details right, you lose the comedic effect. Forsaking the authenticity for a few yuks can border on offensive. In short, it’s a daunting task. I had my doubts on the way in.
The Fundamentals of Caring manages to straddle the line, however. It’s a buddy movie. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a road movie. It’s a plea for understanding. It’s bursting at the seams with characters. It’s alright.
It always helps to have Paul Rudd in your film. He demonstrates his ability to mix emotions and common sense like no other. Here he is Ben, a writer of two books you probably haven’t heard of. As a soon to be divorced father of a dead son, he took a turn, took some courses and now is a licensed caregiver for the disabled.
His first client is Trevor (Roberts) who is a kid just out of his teen suffering from Muscular Dystrophy. Trevor comes in with a confrontational style of humor that is sometimes funny and often slightly offensive, if you’re into taking offense for others. That he is the literary sledgehammer is obvious. We take less offense at his remarks because it is he in the wheelchair. The logistics of it would become boring fast were it not for Rudd’s atypical response to the situation.
In the periphery we have Trevor’s mother Elsa (the usually excellent Ehle). She is somewhere between overprotective and preoccupied, but when it comes down to it, she is able to recognize something good when she sees it. Even if it goes against every instinct both she and her son have developed in their years of a protective routine.
I will leave it to you to decide whether one can accept a first time caregiver taking his first client on a cross country trip to see the world’s largest man made pit. I think I might insist on coming along, at the very least, but who’s counting?
If Mom had come along, we may well have picked up the chain smoking Dot (Gomez), or possibly even the very pregnant Peaches (Ferguson), but the dynamics would have been a whole lot different.
But Mom doesn’t come along, and we end up with the two girls (dare we say, “women?”). Peaches comes across as more of a prop than anything. What kind of scene will you get when you add a very pregnant woman to a story at the end of the second act?
Gomez gets a bit more screen time with her Disney version of world weary. It’s a part that is designed to have a safe dream girl step into and I guess Vanessa Hudgens and the girl who plays Jessie were not available.
Lest one accuse me of taking cheap shots, it’s quite clear that she’s giving her best estimate of the kind of character that would be suitable for the role of wild child, but many of her reactions give the feeling that we are still in Waverly Place no matter how far across the states we travel. Still, I don’t fault her for trying. She will get there. After all Jodie Foster was once a Disney kid.
For Roberts, this is a plumb role, and he hits the mark for the most part. His ornery predisposition is not an earthquake of cruelty for those who care about him. That would be too easy to play. Instead, he gives us a more realistic series of aftershocks designed to test if one is really paying attention to him. The character is definitely an uptick from playing a guy named “Assjuice” in Neighbors.
The film works best when it concentrates on the relationship between the two protagonists. Rudd and Roberts play well off of each other, and when it goes deeper than words, it’s believable and entertaining. If they’d given the bit players smaller portions, the story might flow better.
Overall, though, it’s a good film and Burnett’s heart is in the right place. I don’t think that there are any standout laughs in the film. It’s doubtful that anyone will ever find a great reason to add the word “retard” to a script, but I don’t think one could ever make too many Make a Wish jokes. Not that I am against, Make a Wish, mind you. I would just enjoy seeing Katy Perry more involved, as it were.
Netflix is a good spot for a film like The Fundamentals of Caring. Hospice care has really only played a part in one big hit in my lifetime, and even then, Swank was a boxer for most of Million Dollar Baby. This is a good Sunday night after the kids are in bed movie. There is not much romance in my house heading into Monday, so why not fill it with a well-intentioned movie with minimal hugging and learning?
(*** out of *****)