Review: The Fundamentals of Caring (Sundance)
REVIEW: The big news going into Sundance this year was that Netflix spent millions on the VOD (not theatrical) rights to THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING. Having seen the film for myself, I have to hand it to Netflix - they’ve made a canny deal. This is exactly the type of easygoing, non-offensive schmaltz that’ll play well on a streaming platform. It’s non challenging, it’s fine to run in the background, but it absolutely doesn’t hold up to scrutiny one bit. In a way it’s a kind of “Sundance greatest hits” in how it transparently aspires to be an audience pleasing breakout in the vein of other successful comedy/dramas (the festival’s bread and butter for awhile). Still, there’s an artlessness to it that’s disappointing, in that it feels almost like a mediocre TV movie and wastes two great performances by Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts.
Writer/director Rob Burnett has made a good-hearted movie, but it has absolutely no edge and often feels like a sitcom. It’s about as mold-breaking as PATCH ADAMS in that it shamelessly tugs on the heartstrings for ninety minutes, in a way that feels more like manipulation than entertainment. Still, the first act is relatively decent thanks mostly to the performances.
Right from the first meeting between Rudd’s Ben and Roberts’s Trevor you’ll know exactly where this is going. Ben’s set-up as a troubled guy from the start, having spent years dodging a bailiff sent by his wife to force him to sign divorce papers, and he’s constantly having stylized flashbacks to his late son’s death, with the reasons behind his passing not hard to figure out. Trevor’s also a troubled soul, spending his days watching TV under the smothering care of his mother (the great Jennifer Ehle) while covering his wounds with a caustic sense-of-humor. Wanna bet each guy will help the other come out of his shell?
Based on their chemistry, it still almost works despite being so familiar. Rudd’s good at mixing comedy and drama, and when the movie gets too saccharin he’ll throw in a one-liner that keeps things from getting too sappy. SUBMARINE’s Roberts also makes for a worthy sparring partner in the cynicism department and when it’s just the two of them, THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING is alright.
Too bad the movie hits the skids big time once Ben convinces Trevor’s mom to allow the two to take a road trip together, with them immediately picking up a cute, quirky hitchhiker (Selena Gomez) and bonding in their cross-country journey rife with confrontations and predictable plot twists. This is especially true once a pregnant woman joins their little crew.
It’s weird how extraneous the hitchhikers feels and they start to dominate what should be Rudd’s movie, with him taking a backseat to Roberts’s unconvincing romance with teen vixen Gomez. The pop princess, who showed promise in SPRING BREAKERS and packs a lot of star-power into her music videos (I don’t mean that sarcastically) is badly miscast. She’s not a capable enough performer to go head-to-head with Rudd and Roberts, with her line readings often quite bad. At best, she’s bland. At worst, she’s embarrassing. A more seasoned performer was needed.
Then again, even the best teen-aged actress wouldn’t have made a difference considering how predictable the movie becomes. The predictability factor is so high that you could turn it of after an hour and guess exactly how the last act is going to go and be extremely accurate. The movie’s epilogue is especially bad, with a summing-up moment that’s one of the great Hollywood cliché book.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING isn’t unwatchable, but it’s phony and manipulative. Again though, on a lazy Sunday afternoon it might make for a perfectly acceptable Netflix streaming, but Rudd and Roberts deserve so much better.