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The Fundamentals of Caring | Review

Careworn Crucibles: Burnett’s Clichés Prove Reading is Fundamental

The Fundamentals of CaringWriter and producer Rob Burnett, who has a healthy television resume with contributions such as “Ed” and “Late Show with David Letterman,” adapts Jonathan Evison’s novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving for his sophomore effort. With its title slightly tweaked to be less of a mouthful for its intended audience, Burnett achieves a cloying, middle-of-the-road miasma of clichés strung together with unabashed glee. Though the film enjoys a foul-mouthed novelty by eschewing the trap of a PG-13 MPAA rating, it hardly makes this adolescent effort any more adult oriented. Packed with enough quirky supporting characters to make this sugary coated confection more of a diabetic threat, the successful chemistry between its two affable leads gets lost in Burnett’s swamp of emotional manipulation. However, audiences who enjoy predicting every familiar beat of their tender hearted, conservatively minded melodramas will probably feel less caustic towards the film’s overall well-meaning vibe.

After suffering a devastating personal tragedy three years prior, author Ben (Paul Rudd) has been floundering. Avoiding his wife, who has been urging him to sign divorce papers, Ben instead gets his license as a caregiver. His first interview is to care for Trevor (Craig Roberts), an eighteen-year-old with muscular dystrophy. Trevor’s mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) is reluctant to hire someone with little experience thanks to Trevor’s difficult behavior. But Ben seems to handle Trevor’s particular brand of humor. Eventually, the odd couple challenge one another to grow beyond the stagnant emotional rut they both find themselves in.

However, these challenges end up making our protagonists reiterating a bit of the toxic ideology already plaguing them. “That’s what we’re here for,” explains Rudd towards the end of the film, referring to mankind’s ability to procreate. It’s a crushingly insipid moment for his otherwise sympathetic character, who we realize is grappling with the aftermath of deep-seated tragedy from the film’s overwrought opening montage featuring his pursuit of a caregiving license. Multiple slow-motion, fuzzy flashbacks concerning the demise of his child three years previously (a cycle ridiculously completed during an emergency child delivery, which apparently jolts him into a breakneck emotional 180) seem like a parody of Lars Von Trier’s opening in Antichrist (2009).

The best moments in The Fundamentals of Caring transpire between Rudd and Craig Roberts, many which seem off-the-cuff bits of improvisation. Roberts manages to be especially important because he manages to entertain despite the crushing disappointment of his co-stars (even though this isn’t terribly too far from his breakout performance in 2010’s Submarine), and this should certainly generate more attention than his bizarre supporting turn as a wannabe frat boy in Neighbors (2014). Rudd is in his usually enjoyable personable mode, even when his character is basted into a cornball finale. Likewise, Jennifer Ehle remains a warm screen presence as Trevor’s caring mother. But an astoundingly dismal Selena Gomez, here as a surprise hitchhiker and romantic interest for Roberts, lacerates any real emotional depth Burnett establishes. Every single line delivery is uttered with glaring insincerity, suggesting Burnett was unable to correctly salvage an appropriate a performance from the pop star. Frederick Weller, as Trevor’s estranged car salesman father, is also wooden in his brief cameo in a stagey reunion right out of the deadbeat dad/angelic mother handbook.

Unforgivingly familiar, The Fundamentals of Caring aims to please a mainstream sensibility which approves of validating life’s possibilities at every turn, a rosy tinted bit of escapism featuring an altruistic white savior and an outsider in need of saving from his victimhood. Trite and too desperate to satisfy, Burnett’s film forgets one of the cardinal rules outlined in the caregiving course by suggesting good people will always care too much, no matter what’s professional or proper.


Reviewed on January 22nd at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Programme. 93 Min.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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