Chalk up “The Fundamentals of Caring” as more proof that Paul Rudd is one of the best salesmen in his business. He can make the adventures of a superhero ant look worth while, as with the latest “Ant-Man" (which he not only starred in but co-wrote). In his latest success of transitioning from movies that tried to simplify his charisma (titles like "How Do You Know," "Admission"), he shows Sundance viewers that he can invigorate the buddy road trip formula, especially if the film is steered by his emotional accessibility and droll sense of humor. Not that director Rob Burnett’s project solely needs Rudd, but that with Rudd's joie de vivre, the cold road trip tale is somehow warm again.
In this film adapted from the Jonathan Evison novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” Rudd plays a newly-licensed caregiver who starts to work with the crass Trevor (Craig Roberts), a self-isolated young man who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Aside from a dark sense of humor that constantly has them messing with each other about their dynamics, the two are bonded by a lack of movement in life. When not working with Trevor, Ben lays in bed, traumatized by the loss of his young son, still refusing to sign the divorce papers his wife has been sending him for over three years. Meanwhile, Trevor sticks to his routine of eating the same meal every day, only going outside once a week, and never reading any of the letters that his absent father sends him in the mail. When Trevor and Ben get in a fight while trying to remind the other of how they are wasting their lives, the idea for a road trip is accidentally born. Trevor has always been curious about the World’s Largest Pit, for how depressing it must be, and Ben decides that Trevor should see it for himself.
Once the two get on the road, all switches are flipped inside of Rudd that allow him to fully cut loose as a funny softie, with Burnett knowing well enough to just let him play (in a David Wain-like echo, he also lets Rudd riff for longer than a regular comedy on an impression of a British person eating a Slim Jim). And as thoroughly charismatic as Rudd is, Roberts is a delightful foil, with his own vulnerabilities during the road trip that Roberts doesn’t overplay. When working together, they orchestrate cruel yet hilarious mind games against each other’s weak spots, the sensitivity of the road trip’s medical conditions at the center of their jokes. The film’s ball-busting, cuss-heavy sense of humor keeps its dramatic engines greased, especially when the story starts veering its characters in comparably forgettable, saccharine directions.
Burnett shows to have a sophistication with the set-up, and an awareness about what keeps a road trip movie going, as compared to what drags them along. For one, “The Fundamentals of Caring” works at an impressive pace, as the two meet in one scene and are bonded over a concise montage, in which Trevor’s stubborn routine and their new bond is introduced, so that preceding events can quickly get them on the road. When the story does put them in the van, Burnett resists turning his characters’ tour of weird Americana into segmented goofy pit stops, instead basing their breaks around sweet gestures. In a scene cut with great beats and quick dialogue, Rudd and Roberts force a willfully ignorant tourist trap that doesn’t have wheelchair access to carry Roberts’ wheelchair up and down some stairs, achieving both comedy and an empathy within a short amount of time.
Though it has this steady, big heart, there’s a noticeable drop-off from its high-grade buddy antics when it grows to include other characters. Selena Gomez appears halfway through the movie as the hitchhiking Dot, who can be as tacky as she is sassy, but clearly because she is comparatively underwritten, used as more of a cringe-worthy “love interest with magical timing” for the relationship-challenged Trevor. As it enters its quite creaky third act, the film comes closest to succumbing to road trip cliches when it picks up a fourth passenger (a pregnant woman played by Megan Ferguson), who has fleeting narrative purpose despite contributing to the film’s welcoming atmosphere.
But by its final destination, “The Fundamentals of Caring” is comforting for how it features a presentation of muscular dystrophy, but isn’t focused on hammering in the means of the condition—refreshingly, it is used more as means to start the journey, not to forcefully interrupt it. Nor does “The Fundamentals of Caring” want to push a schmaltzy connection between Ben and Trevor—they just happened to find each other, and nonetheless become better for it. It does, however, want to be fully funny and even more so sweet, a sensation it achieves often, especially with a running joke about Ben trying to help Trevor—by any means necessary—fulfill his simple wish to be able to stand up and pee.