The Fundamentals of Caring review – Paul Rudd brightens amiable illness tale

This dewy-eyed story of a carer-patient bond rarely deviates from the Hollywood template but is enlivened by spirited showings from Rudd and Craig Roberts

As Netflix and Amazon power ahead, their purchasing muscle is permanently altering the face of contemporary Hollywood, allowing previously fallow and neglected areas of the industry – mid-range, character based dramas and comedies – to flourish in the age of tentpoles and microbudgets.

That’s the theory, anyhow, and this latest addition to the Netflix stable, a dewy-eyed exercise in male bonding with added pseudo-hipster quirk, bears it out. Though it’s not exactly an Earth-shattering development: this, as well as Ricky Gervais’s Special Correspondents, suggests that there might be a good reason why a cinema release for this sort of thing is trickier than it used to be.

Written and directed by Rob Burnett, former producer of David Letterman’s talkshow, this is adapted from a novel by Jonathan Evison with the even less snappy title of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. These “fundamentals” are quickly disposed of in an opening sequence where furrowed-brow novelist Ben (Paul Rudd) takes a short course in caregiving, where, among the acronyms and aphorisms, the movie’s basic pitch is spelled out: the carer’s needs are as important as the care receiver’s. Uh-oh – emotional issues klaxon.

Ben swiftly gets a gig as carer for a kid called Trevor (Craig Roberts) with a rare disorder called Duchenne muscular dystrophy – which, in true Hollywood-illness style, doesn’t seem to make him look especially unwell at any point, even though he’s supposed in the advanced stages of it. (That, perhaps, is within the boundaries of acceptable dramatic license, but it does make his mother, spiritedly played by Jennifer Ehle, look like an overprotective nag.)

Well, Trevor – who has a slightly boring line in over-the-top pranks, such as pretending to be choking to death – has an adorable habit of mapping out delightfully lame tourist sites, such as the US’s biggest cow, and deepest pit. In a very literal piece of symbolism Ben decides the housebound and apparently agoraphobic Trev must get out on the road and actually visit the damn places. Again, other than a twitch or two, the agoraphobia rapidly disappears without any follow-through. Of more import, seemingly, is Trevor’s shy-boy nervousness around truck-stop babe Selena Gomez, who airily accepts – in order – a meal, a ride, and a motel room from them.

The film’s best two weapons are its leads: Rudd, who seems to be slowly morphing into a bantamweight Harrison Ford, and Roberts, who rather heroically hangs on to his Welsh accent despite the Americanisms he is occasionally compelled to utter. As ever, Rudd exudes a relaxed confidence and makes a potentially joyless role, as man weighed down by past miseries, a dynamic part of proceedings; Roberts gives a lively, nuanced performance even if the script has stuffed his character with indie-stylebook gimmicks.

The whole is watchable enough, with redemption and healing the keynote themes, and some rather nice landscape photography. Inevitably, perhaps, it pulls its punches, and soft-pedals on any authentic misery that its scenarios might evoke. But its essential amiability and decency comes through.

  • The Fundamentals of Caring will be available to stream on Netflix from 24 June


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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