The Fundamentals Of Caring
As I’ve started a new job and am working longer hours than I have for a while, it’s likely enough that in future my film reviews might be shortened up a bit. With that in mind, here’s a shorter review than normal this week, the first being another of Netflix’ continuing series of original movies. But not an Adam Sandler in sight, thankfully.
Trying, but failing, to move on from a personal tragedy, Ben (Paul Rudd) signs up to be a caregiver, and soon lands the job of looking after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a wheelchair bound teen suffering from both DMD and an altogether black sense of humour. After getting used to each other, Ben takes Trevor out on a road trip across America: along the way, there will be sassy hitchhikers (Selena Gomez), stranded pregnant women (Megan Ferguson) giant cows, giant pits and some personal growth.
Based on the book by Jonathan Evison, The Fundamentals Of Caring has a lot going for it, in both its cast and general sense of comedic tone. But it’s a film that ultimately can’t break free of the constraints of formula: both as a road trip buddy movie, and as an exploration of life living with the kind of terrible illness that is DMD.
On the positive side is the many vignettes that make up The Fundamentals Of Caring, the road trip elements, where the film becomes more a series of sketches than a 90 minute production, utilising the somewhat unhinged premise of a wheelchair bound teen and his carer attempting to one up each other in bad pranks as they travel across the state looking at terrible roadside attractions (one, featuring the world’s biggest bovine, is particularly notable after an encounter with no wheelchair access). It takes the film a while to settle in to itself and the chosen tone – an early joke involving Trevor acting intellectually disabled horrifies rather than cheers – but once you get to a giggle-inducing montage about Trevor needing Ben’s help to go to the bathroom you’ll be firmly along for the ride.
Literally. While the actual trip they take hits all of the beats you would expect, right down to the unlikely but sweet romantic relationship for the doomed teen, the meet-up with an absent parental figure, both sides of the coin learning things about themselves and an indie soundtrack to back it all up, it’s still the kind of film I had no problem enjoying. The humour is acerbic, dark and witty, and once you see Paul Rudd trying to get Trevor to eat a Slim Jim – using the most atrocious but hilarious English accent to do so – you’ll no longer be quite as put off by the sudden, and sometimes jarring, changes to serious drama.
Ben’s attempts to get on from his ended marriage and the death of his young son, and Trevor’s frequent lapses into self-loathing – a notable recurring line being a game where he asks people to “pick a number between 1 and 3’500”, matching the odds people have of being born with DMD – form the dramatic backbone of The Fundamentals Of Caring but, as with things like Silver Linings Playbook, it’s often difficult to match realistic portrayal of such disorders with bellyaching attempts. The world of film has been inundated with young people suffering from awful disorders recently, and I still haven’t seen an effort that I would describe as truly stand-out.
The Fundamentals Of Caring trundles along into a disjointed and somewhat unengaging last act, as multiple ending points accrue and the predictable nature of the narrative really gets into overload. In the end, in story terms, there’s nothing really inventive here. Compared to something like, say, Little Miss Sunshine, which took the road trip premise and blew it apart in the most spectacular and entertaining manner, The Fundamentals Of Caring is far more content to play it safe in everything but the odd bit of profanity.
The film also stumbles a little bit with its cast. It isn’t that Rudd is disinterested per say, but he seems to lack a certain enthusiasm for large parts, as if The Fundamentals Of Caring was just a small project he had going between bigger things. He’s easily outdone by Roberts, a fine young actor playing a very difficult role, who better manages the dividing line between comedy and drama. Selena Gomez isn’t an actress I’m very familiar with but does fine here in what is largely a stock role, with Megan Ferguson only introduced late as a means of staging a dramatic finale. There’s not much else to the cast, bar a fretting Jennifer Ehle as Trevor’s put upon mother, absent after the first act.
Director Rob Burnett is better known as a writer and a producer, and that kind of shows here, and Gils Nuttgens isn’t exactly a stellar cinematographer either (Battlefield Earth man, what the hell). Between the two of them they create a somewhat off-putting look to the film at times, with too many scenes featuring really drab colours and looks, with only the bog standard road movie clips of America passing by enlivening things at times. There are a few different moments of ingenuity, like a slow pan up on a diner scene or the comedic timing with aforementioned giant cow, but The Fundamentals Of Caring really does come off as the kind of film directed by someone not typically used to the job, which is a shame.
Burnett was also responsible for adapting the book into a script, and does a bit better there, though the delivery from the principals is frequently lacking. There are some very simple but effective scenes between Ben and Trevor, such as when Ben playfully berates his charge for his monosyllabic response to a compliment from a beautiful girl, but too often things become stilted and predictable: every angrier, more dramatic exchange is obvious and uninspired to a fault, while characters like that played by Gomez are fairly one-note. When it comes to offering commentary on the nature of the caregiver/care receiver relationship, The Fundamentals Of Caring can’t really muster anything truly profound up, sticking to tried and true “You can’t get too close/It’s impossible not to get close” dichotomy, criticising the “ALOHA” sentiment dished out by Ben’s caregiving class as not enough.
I don’t want to come off as too critical, but it’s fair to say that The Fundamentals Of Caring is just the kind of film that could have used a bit more care and a bit more passion from nearly everyone involved, and is bound to vanish into the morass of low budget mumblecore that I hope Netflix won’t be tying itself to too much too. But it’s still a frequently funny and heart-warming movie, even if you can lay out all the stops of the journey ahead of time, as well as the final destination (though, that last joke floored me, I’ll admit). With some iffy directing, acting and writing, but also some good comedy and explorations of disability, The Fundamentals Of Caring is a partial recommend from me.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).