Friday, September 30, 2016

Escape Artist: Paul Rudd and The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring on Netflix.

With his compact frame, large head, and pliable facial features, Paul Rudd has endeared himself almost to every audience since his priceless work in Clueless (1994) and before. Even in pictures that fail to live up to their reputation, he finds a way to rise above. In the Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007), which pushes an interesting idea too far, Rudd steals the show with his portrayal of Seth Rogan's brother-in-law to be. Now he's heading into movie star territory, after his pitch-perfect performance in the under-appreciated Ant-Man from last year. While Rudd's range has yet to be tested, his relaxation, timing, and emotional intelligence make him irrepressible.

In the Netflix movie The Fundamentals of Caring (from earlier this year), Rudd escapes disaster yet again—barely. Rob Burnett's adaptation of the Jonathan Evison novel is a heaping dose of corn served on a platter of schmaltz. As Ben Benjamin, a caregiver to a young man with muscular dystrophy, Rudd is the only thing in the picture that holds your interest. And he alone among the actors emerges unscathed. That he does save his neck is a wonder, given the film's near-shameless sentimentality. We meet Benjamin at the movie's outset as he finishes a social work course and lands an interview with Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), the mother of the aforementioned boy. Trevor (Craig Roberts), her teenage son, is wheelchair-bound and in need of a daytime provider while his mom's at work. Despite Elsa's anal-retentive qualities and Trevor's scare tactics, Ben successfully pleads for the job—he's an unemployed writer who's wife's filing for divorce after a two-year separation.

A setup like this one can provide a moving, genuine story, charting how the relationship between a provider and his charge becomes one of mutual self-giving. It can also easily veer into mawkish bullshit. And Burnett (who wrote the screenplay and directed) wrings out every bit of hokum he can. The movie accelerates through the honeymoon phase of Ben's involvement with Trevor, which is not so much a honeymoon as a nightmare. Trevor tests Ben with a retinue of pranks and insults, which the man weathers with exhausted cheer (Trevor is his first client). Burnett directs Roberts' Trevor as a cheeky asshole, and the actor relies incessantly on his British abrasiveness (Trevor and his mom are from England) for laughs. But the sardonic one-liners seldom work and it doesn't help that he reads them all the same way. When Trevor calls himself a prick in a wheelchair, you agree (and you think that Roberts' looks way too old for this part). But you also know that Burnett has written him as two-dimensional on purpose. Complexity is chucked.

Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, and Paull Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring.

That purpose would be to show his transformation as Ben breaks through his crusty exterior. It would also be to show how Rudd's Ben finds a surrogate son in the young man. Benjamin, we learn, lost his son in a tragic accident several years ago, prompting his divorce and depression. Burnett drops this information into the picture in such a casual manner that you start to wonder what he thinks of his audience. At that point, the movie starts ticking as many sentimental boxes as it can---and there are a lot. It turns, predictably, into a road picture, with Ben pushing Trevor to get out of his house and take in the wider world. Their destination is a spot in Utah that boasts the world's largest pit, with a stop to visit Trevor's estranged father en route. Apparently, coming of age in this picture means drinking soda and eating slim jims (a bit that works only because of Rudd's comic instincts). In a stroke of true sophistication, Trevor's coming-of-age wish is to piss standing up. Ben's attempts to grant it becomes a trite running gag. This movie's cute poses are almost too numerous to believe.

Trevor is obsessed with sex and it's only natural to throw in some puppy love at this point. As required, the pair pick up a teenage runaway named Dot (Selena Gomez) to serve as Trevor's romantic interest. Too bad Burnett doesn't care to give her a character either or create any interesting situations on the road. Gomez gives nothing but crass interjections in a forced brassy style. Meantime, Roberts telegraphs his acting in broad comic stabs. The crew also picks up a pregnant, distressed motorist named Peaches (Megan Ferguson), tossed on conveniently for Ben to work out his grief. They sit and discuss parenthood, while Dot and Trevor share a date that ends in a declaration that the boy's handsome. But why stop there? Burnett also has Peaches narrate her soldier-husband's capture by Afghan rebels. By the movie's end, it's hard to decide what's more preposterous: Bobby Cannavale showing up as Dot's repentant dad, or Ben giving birth to Peaches' baby at the bottom of the pit as he has a post-traumatic flashback of his son's death. If those don't suffice, I also offer the ridiculous scene with Trevor's father, a car salesman who exists to be the precise asshole Burnett wants.

The Fundamentals of Caring aims for a weird combination of light-hearted tone and melodramatic bunk. I don't know if that's worse than earnest melodrama, but then again Burnett may be so inept that he actually intended to move his audience with this pap. I'd like to say that he acted in good faith, but—with the panaromic shot of Trevor urinating triumphantly off a cliff—it's hard to believe he didn't know what he was doing. Or the cast. Some give their best but are crushed by the material. Some know what's going on and just phone in their performances. Rudd's too smart not to know, but, against the odds, he finds a winning strategy. It may be only his natural charm, in the end. But with a doozy like this, that's all we can ask.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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