Paul Rudd is capable of some amazing things, but he can’t make you believe in “The Fundamentals of Caring”, one of those emotionally artificial comedies that have become a staple of the Sundance Film Festival. Not even Rudd’s gift for elevating mediocre material is enough for this lousy, formulaic road trip buddy comedy filled with unnecessarily quirky characters and meager life lessons taken straight out of a self-help manual. That writer/director Rob Burnett presents a thankfully respectful look at muscular dystrophy is only a small, warming comfort in this otherwise coldly unlikable effort, inexplicably picked up by Netflix for a sizable sum days ago.
Material this cliched is far beneath the cast, and it’s clear Burnett is leaning on them to cover for it. Rudd plays Ben Benjamin, a caregiver with a tragic past that has left him emotionally broken and unable to move on. He takes a job, his first, caring for Trevor (“Submarine” star Craig Roberts), a sharp-witted teen suffering from muscular dystrophy. One crippled in spirit, the other crippled physically; the parallels Burnett draws are broad and obvious, which wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were remotely likable. The foul-mouthed Trevor’s idea of humor is faking his own death, which is especially unfunny given that he’s only expected to live for a few more years. That Ben indulges and even participates is strange given the way they learn one another’s most painful secrets, which is largely through deception. The bond they begin to form never feels natural, and Burnett doesn’t make it any better by sending them on that tired old trope, the road trip, to visit the world’s largest steer and then the world’s largest pit.
The trip is spawned so that both men can branch out and stop wasting their lives, but litle happens that would seem to change any of that. We eventually learn why Ben is still living in the past, and the loved one’s death that has hit him so hard, but it all feels perfectly designed to illicit the right emotional response, not something genuine. Worst are the cast of increasingly quirky characters littered throughout the story, perhaps to punch up the bland boys’ club that it is for far too long. Selena Gomez’s painted on jeans give a stronger performance than she does as a smart-mouthed hitchhiker Trevor falls for. To be fair, it’s not her fault since the role is drastically under-written, as she’s played that type of character elsewhere to better result. When her presence doesn’t give the film enough of a boost, a squirrelly pregnant lady (Megan Ferguson) arrives and has zero relevance other than to give birth at the time of least convenience.
While a certain level of schmaltz is to be expected in a film like this, Burnett, adapting Jonathan Evison’s novel, offers little else, making this one road trip where the journey and destination prove fundamentally unsatisfying.