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Programmed to premiere in the second half of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, maudlin meh-fest The Fundamentals of Caring cleaves so closely to the stereotypes of indie filmmaking, it’s as if it were created by some demonic cinematic algorithm. Director Rob Burnett, previously executive producer on The Late Show With David Letterman, does the math with a comedy-drama road movie that sneers mildly at middle American kitsch while teaching a bittersweet life lesson. It’s got a biggish star (Paul Rudd) cast against a British up-and-comer (Craig Roberts) and a starlet seeking low-budget credibility (Selena Gomez). Surely only some glitch in the machine prevented Catherine Keener or James Franco from doing a cameo, while the absence of a scene where the characters spontaneously warble some easy-listening classic can only be a bug.
Burnett’s previous effort, his directorial debut We Made This Movie, slipped into obscurity after its premiere in 2012. Chances are The Fundamentals of Caring will fare moderately better thanks to the cast, but distributors will need to give it a lot of life support to get it through even a short theatrical run.
Rudd stars as Ben Benjamin, a minor novelist who has chosen to give up writing and become a caregiver for the infirm, hence the textbook-evoking title. Burnett’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Evison, takes its sweet time teasing out why Ben looks so glum, decided to switch careers and is getting a divorce from his ex-wife (Julia Denton), but it’s pretty easy to spot there will be guilt and dead children involved.
Ben’s very first gig on qualifying is looking after Trevor (Submarine‘s Craig Roberts), an English teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who has recently moved to Seattle with his mother, Elsa (Jennifer Ehle, always a treat). No satisfactory explanation is provided as to why Elsa would choose to forsake the benefits of the U.K.’s national health service to work in a small local bank in Seattle, but it’s just something viewers will have to take on faith. Although confident enough to give Ben major sass, Trevor is seemingly afraid to break out of his bubble of predictable routine and try new things. As a break from watching TV, he’s compiling a map of attractions across America featuring disproportionally big stuff — cows, slices of pie, that sort of thing – but doesn’t want to visit any of them. Guess where he and Ben end up going on a road trip of self-discovery?
En route to see the deepest man-made quarry pit, filled with water and cheap symbolism, Ben and Trevor pick up feisty teen love interest Dot (Gomez) and a ditsy pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson, who is so mesmeric to look at she deserves to get some kind of break out of this). Pit stops are made along the way for bathroom breaks and bitter reunions with deadbeat fathers.
Rudd and Roberts compete to see who can deliver their lines with more laconic blaseness, and it’s a photo finish, but Roberts perhaps takes the prize. He’s an appealing performer with fine comic timing. On the other hand, as portraits of physical disability go, his effort here is either a masterpiece of well-researched subtlety or a case of barely even trying.
Veteran British lenser Giles Nuttgens manages to make all times of day look like magic hour, and has a fine eye for off-kilter compositions which squeeze maximum weirdness out of the bleak, wide-open landscapes chosen.
Production companies: Levantine Films, in association with Worldwide Pants
Cast: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Frederick Weller, Bobby Cannavale
Director-screenwriter: Rob Burnett, based on the book The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
Producer: Donna Gigliotti, James Spies, Rob Burnett
Executive producers: Jamal Daniel, Renee Witt
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Editor: Christopher Passig
Production designer: Meghan Rogers
Costume designer: Peggy Stamper
Composer: Ryan Miller
Casting: Alison Jones
Not rated, 93 minutes
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