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.