The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
Director: Rob Burnett
Genre: Drama
Netflix Original

There is a lot of piss and shit in The Fundamentals of Caring, the new Netflix original film from Rob Burnett based on the novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. The film’s two main characters, caretaker Ben (Paul Rudd) and muscular dystrophy patient and shut-in Trevor (Craig Roberts), connect over an interview question in which the latter asks the former his plans for wiping his ass. From there, two scenes rarely pass without a shit joke or a physical struggle to get Trevor to relieve himself. It’s crass, but fitting, because both Ben and Trevor have been dealt hands in life that are, well, shitty.

Burnett, who adapted the screenplay, never accelerates too aggressively toward the tragic circumstances that define the lives of these two men, but through orchestrated dialogue, he keeps the inevitability and permanency of their bad fortune in scope. One will always live in the sadness of a singular event, the other will inevitably lose his life to his condition far earlier than anyone can define as fair. By carefully holding these two truths in the proper place, Burnett sidesteps the empty themes of “overcoming” and over-saturated sulkiness that frequently plague similar self-discovery stories and buddy road trip films.

And that’s a real threat when a film like this travels a path so worn that it has become a narrative slippery slope. The Fundamentals of Caring offers nothing new or surprising from a plot perspective. Nor does its narrative offer a single surprising turn, really. It’s clear from the moment the van is packed roughly how their shared trip will turn out. But Burnett manages to present a movie that, while not fresh, still ends up being refreshing.

Largely, this sense of perhaps easily-earned satisfaction is a result of the chemistry between Rudd and Roberts, two actors whose comedic performance style is heavily dependent upon delivery and timing. Each has a distinct comedic screen style, but the brands dance together rather well. Enough has been said over the last decade regarding Rudd’s inexhaustible likability (with Ant-Man, Marvel, perhaps the most large-minded studio working in a business sense, has added an entire chapter to its extended universe based solely on the public’s adoration of Rudd), and Burnett is smart to build outward from there. But in this film, Rudd’s wit and befuddling charm isn’t as endearing as it is sympathetic, at times almost pitiful. His jokes are often defensive, sometimes even helpless reactions, and his flabbergasted expression often looks more like surrender than comedy. He is still quite funny, but there is added emotional weight to each solicited chuckle. While the film itself may be a bit too thin to embolden on his resume, it still serves as a great reminder that Rudd is a classically trained actor.

Similarly, Roberts’ performance cuts fear and cynicism into his sarcastic defensiveness. Roberts’ is a much steeper hill to climb and Trevor’s witticisms are almost constant, shifting back and forth from the dialogue foreground to embedded commentary on his mother, his caretaker, and the hitchhikers that he and Ben eventually pick up along their way. And while his cleverness is so emboldened by the script and the actor’s delivery, Roberts’ face, particularly his saddened eyes, layers in just enough complexity to his intention. It’s enough that a somewhat shoehorned romantic sidestory with hitchhiker Dot (a surprisingly strong turn from Selena Gomez, even it is somewhat diluted by her character never being more than narrative device) becomes more engaging than it has a right to be.

On the whole, The Fundamentals of Caring deserves praise for what it manages not to be. It is not cheesy, it is not over-wrought, it is not unbearably sad, even though it seems like it should have been. But it is an amusing story of two sad but unavoidably cheer-worthy characters who remind us that when life is all shit, sometimes the best thing we can do is stand tall and take a piss on it.

Featured Image: Netflix