“The film fails to leave a palpable impression, and as a result, sinks into the ever-growing tower of mediocre productions of its ilk – perfectly serviceable, but entirely unoriginal.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Rob Burnett’s The Fundamentals of Caring. It’s a delicately written comedy-drama with type-driven characters. The problem is that there’s been an oversaturation of delicately written comedy-dramas with type-driven characters over the last decade or so, and new entrants in this subgenre have to do something to set themselves apart from the crowd. And that’s ultimately a challenge that this movie doesn’t succeed in overcoming. As the 97 minute film moves past its first couple of acts, Burnett’s screenplay, based on a novel by Jonathan Evison, becomes weighed down with additional content which never blends in. A rather well-spun story setup is left with towering genre clichés, both in terms of individual moments and general story structuring. The film fails to leave a palpable impression, and as a result, sinks into the ever-growing tower of mediocre productions of its ilk – perfectly serviceable, but entirely unoriginal.
That’s not to say that The Fundamentals of Caring doesn’t carve out a couple of good performances at its core. Quite the contrary. Paul Rudd stars as Ben, a writer who is now training to become a caregiver. He and his wife separated shortly after an accident claimed the life of their young son, and those emotional clouds still hang low. Ben’s first assignment is to look after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a sarcastic, somewhat hedonistic teenager who has a muscular disorder which confines him to a wheelchair and limits his life expectancy to about thirty. While the two face difficulty getting along in the short-term, their rapport smoothens out, and Ben decides to take Trevor on a road trip across the country and catch some obscure tourist traps – the world’s largest bovine, the world’s biggest pit, etc. – and soon the guys embark on their journey, despite some resistance from Trevor’s mother (Jennifer Ehle), and surprisingly Trevor himself (turns out his cocky confidence seen when discussing a plan to have the Make-A-Wish Foundation get Katy Perry to sing “Firework” while doing unprintable things to him doesn’t fully hold up). Along the way they will meet some quirky companions (a young runaway named Dot (Selena Gomez) and a pregnant army wife (Megan Ferguson)) and in the end, Trevor and Ben begin to confront their old hangups and struggles, often in the most peculiar ways.
The road trip movie can often prove hard to manage, especially when the characters within are underdeveloped. This is partially the case for The Fundamentals of Caring. Rudd and Roberts have a kind of eccentric chemistry as Ben and Trevor, firing off caustic remarks as they slowly overcome initial animosity. However, when Gomez and Ferguson are added to the mix, Burnett begins to struggle with this development, and eventually the viewer loses interest in the film altogether. There’s never a point of equalization, and despite four capable performances from our leads, the script lets them down. Even a handful of climactic events which occur at the trip’s intended destination (the world’s biggest pit) fail to reignite viewer engagement.
Generally speaking, doubling a story’s character capacity more than halfway through doesn’t bode well for cohesion. At that point, the film is no longer about a caregiver and his patient bonding, but rather four people, little more than strangers, talking over one another and spouting page after page of exposition. It’s never obnoxiously obtuse, but Burnett is working with an overestablished formula and fails to add anything new. The arguments, relationships, and unexpected crises are all there, and you can count them down with decent accuracy if you’re paying enough attention. A final twenty minutes loaded with callbacks to references made early on in the trip – namely Trevor’s enjoyment of freaking out caretakers by playing dead and his lifelong desire to urinate standing up – does nothing except remind us of a beginning that was filled with promise before the film bit off more than it could chew.