Sundance Film Review: ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’

Sundance 2016 Feature and Documentary Premieres
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts buddy up in Rob Burnett's adaptation of 'The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.'

Indie-comedy cliches get a crowdpleasing workout in “The Fundamentals of Caring,” as a grieving father, a teen with a rare disease, a foul-mouthed former child star and a quirk-filled road trip all add up to what would’ve been among the hottest titles at Sundance 2004. Solid performances and some genuinely sharp humor elevate writer-director Rob Burnett’s second feature, but the theatrical market isn’t what it used to be for this kind of product. Already acquired by Netflix for SVOD in a pricey pre-fest pick-up, that venue sounds like the best bet to connect with audiences.

With material this familiar, casting is crucial. And Burnett has a pair of aces up his sleeve in Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts (“Submarine,” Amazon’s “Red Oaks”) as an emotionally crippled caregiver and his maturity-impaired ward, respectively. Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is a retired novelist in Seattle who spends most of his waking hours dodging his wife’s requests to sign divorce papers. Badly in need of a job, he takes a six-week course in caregiving and applies with no-nonsense English transplant Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) to look after her 18-year-old son, Trevor (Roberts).

Trevor has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare disorder that requires the use of a motorized wheelchair and assistance with everyday activities (as he inquires of Ben during the interview, “How would you wipe my ass?”). He’s also a shut-in by choice, having never spent more than an hour away from his home, except during the flight from the U.K. to the U.S. He spends his days watching TV, eating waffles and making maps of eccentric American landmarks (the biggest cow, the deepest pit) he never actually plans to visit.

While Trevor does his best to make Ben’s job difficult (from pretending he’s choking to hurling insults on a regular basis), the pair naturally begin to bond, especially when they discover each other’s painful secrets. Ben is still processing the death of his young son several years earlier — a tragedy he knows he’ll never overcome. Trevor refuses to open any of the numerous letters he receives from his father (Frederick Weller), who left the family when Trevor was diagnosed with DMD at the age of three and now works at a car dealership in Utah.

When Elsa has to travel to Atlanta on business, Ben seizes the opportunity to take Trevor on an impromptu road trip to see his favorite landmarks — designed to open Trevor’s eyes to the world, but in the process inevitably helping Ben through his own struggles. Along the way they pick up a sassy runaway (Selena Gomez), who serves as a love interest for Trevor, and a pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson), who serves as a reminder of Ben’s crushing loss.

A longtime producer of “Late Show With David Letterman” and working here from a novel by Jonathan Evison, Burnett carefully plays the surrogate father-son bonding at the story’s core with smart-alecky sarcasm to minimize its obvious sentimentality. But there’s something off about the film’s tonal balance. It functions just fine as a loose buddy comedy — Rudd and Roberts have an effortless chemistry whether Ben is introducing Trevor to Slim Jims or Trevor is mocking Ben’s tendency to reappropriate insults — but comes up short when each character experiences a requisite emotional catharsis.

The supporting characters are just types, but Ehle invests her dedicated mother with a wry wit that pairs nicely opposite Rudd’s thoroughly charming turn. The picture loses a bit of snap when she exits, despite Gomez trying her hardest to fill the gap. Cursing like an edgy standup with Tourette’s, smoking and smoldering in a low-key flirtation with Roberts, she can’t help but feel like a third wheel on this journey, despite a third act reveal of her character’s own daddy issues.

Despite the pic’s Western setting, lensing was completed in Georgia at the beginning of 2014. Tech credits are adequate, with Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen compositions transitioning nicely between conversational two-shots and scenic landscapes, while Ryan Miller’s bouncy score provides the expected emotional cues.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Fundamentals of Caring'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production

A Levantine production in association with Worldwide Pants. Produced by Donna Gigliotti, James Spies, Rob Burnett. Executive producers, Jamal Daniel, Renee Witt.

Crew

Directed, written by Rob Burnett, based on the book “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Jonathan Evison. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Giles Nuttgens; editor, Christopher Passig; music, Ryan Miller; music supervisor, Joe Rudge; production designer, Meghan Rogers; art director, Gershon Ginsburg; set decorator, Maria Nay; costume designer, Peggy Stamper; sound, Mary H. Ellis; supervising sound editor, Mariusz Glabinski; re-recording mixer, Martin Czembor; visual effects supervisor, Pete Sussi; visual effects, Platinum Platypus; stunt coordinator, Cal Johnson; assistant director, Dan Leatham; casting, Alison Jones.

With

Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Frederick Weller, Bobby Cannavale.

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  1. Jade Joseph says:

    I am disappointed with the review. It seemed to me like it was telling over the story which I haven’t watched so I filtered through and couldn’t really read it. I thought it would mention age rating, theme inclusive of the degree of sex, drug use, positive message, positive role model, then again this isn’t common sense media is it?

  2. HollywoodGuy says:

    If it’s Paul Rudd, I’ll watch it… no questions asked. Not JUST because I’m a white man, and have a real good chance of resonating with the subject matter, OR because Paul Rudd has the ability to both attract higher quality scripts and deliver a good performance (it’s called acting folks). But because of ALL those things, and my preferences to spend my money how I wish rather than having some inferior product pushed down my throat in the name of political correctness. God forbid I should have access to a marketplace which is responsive to my preferences, the world may stop turning. Producers acquire material and cast as they do, because it creates the product the marketplace wants. Take two Chinese actors, put them in the same movie, and watch your box office returns disappear. Why? Because I do not care what happens to those Chinese characters, and I’m not going to be pressed into spending my money on learning to care. I go to the movies to be ENTERTAINED. Not to be forced to watch stories or characters I don’t care about. Political correctness, and the minority outcry for racial diversity in film is a farce. Watching people react to it positively is lip service, and rightly so. The MARKETPLACE is what determines product selection, and producers who ignore it will cease to be producers with power. Take Chris Rock, or Jada whoever away from any production and few will miss them. Add them to any production under consumer duress, and there will be fewer asses in the seats. I predict lower, not higher ratings for the telecast of the Oscars next year, simply because it may be less entertaining.

    • Clare says:

      Ya know, I think more movies about “Chinese characters” (wtf mate) are being made because… you know… Chinese people actually *exist*. People besides white males should be able to relate to movies too. Spare me your BS about how enjoying diversity is lip service, it might be for you but you don’t speak for all of us. I’m actually excited to see fresh stories.

    • Julie says:

      Nobody is forcing you to watch movies you don’t want to watch.

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