Has Paul Rudd become Hollywood's idea of the face of economic insecurity? There his handsome mug was, in Ant-Man, under a Baskin-Robbins ball cap, his character making do behind an ice-cream counter while Marvel made bank in promotional tie-ins. And now, in The Fundamentals of Caring, Rob Burnett's alternately winning/cloying new road-trip comedy, this rock-abbed movie star is an in-home caretaker making $9 an hour “wiping asses.”
That task and wage get jeered continuously in the movie in ways that would never happen in real-life America, where the cared-for prefer, politely, not to acknowledge the humiliating wages given to their caregivers. Here, it's thrown in the Rudd character's face every couple of scenes, usually by the possessor of the ass in question. That's Trevor (Craig Roberts), an 18-year-old with MS and an unpromising future: His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), says, as she talks Rudd's Ben through a host of medication and medical apparatuses, “Statistically, Trevor probably has seven to 10 years left, so let's try to do everything right, OK?”
The script demands Rudd's face get rubbed in it. (Verbally — the film is shy about the actual work.) That's because, despite its title, The Fundamentals of Caring isn't about the calling of caregiving. It's about male bonding, indie-style, and how caregiving helps the hero sort himself out so he can get back to his real job. The early scenes introduce a pair of tedious sad-dude movie clichés that you know immediately will be bookended just before the credits: Turns out Ben's a novelist who has “retired” after a trauma. Meanwhile, he's too stubborn to sign the divorce papers his estranged wife keeps giving him. Do you think his time with Trevor will teach him to let go of the past and get back to penning lit-fic, a job that, if you break it down, maybe earns less per hour than ass-wiping?
So, as in Ant-Man, there's lots of shopworn redemption-plotting to get through here, and a sense that the filmmakers find the kind of jobs actually available to Americans a little beneath someone as twinkly-cute as Paul Rudd. But — also as in Ant-Man — the pleasures of Rudd overpower the programmatic elements. He's a quick-witted eccentric wearing the skin-suit of what your parents used to call the “Everyman,” a likable non-alpha white guy whom all audiences are expected to identify with. Rudd's too smart to play Every-anything, though, and in his understated grins and furrowings — in his embarrassed mildness — he suggests the depths of a character more prickly, despondent and singular than the familiar story beats demand. Ben is forever trying to win over everyone he meets, to prove he's a mensch, but you never catch the actor trying to win over the audience. He seems to relish exposing the neediness beneath his Midwestern niceness.
By embodying a specific, somewhat desperate individual and working something like jazz changes over a script that's too often a worn-out standard, Rudd gets closer to that old-fashioned Hanks/Stewart relatability than wannabe Everymen ever do. In real life, every man is weird.
Many of Rudd’s best moments here involve getting his feelings hurt or him hurting someone else's, usually Trevor's or Elsa's. Here, patient and caregiver quickly establish a fractious rapport, with Trevor happy to fake medical emergencies for a laugh — or to prove some competitive point between men. Later, of course, Ben goes too far in response, and writer-director Burnett lets the joke play out in painful long takes. We feel stuck in the moment with them, the boys punking each other, punking us, punking themselves.
Eventually, of course, they take a road trip together, and both troubled souls flower against the backdrop of roadside American weirdness. For all the familiar story elements — you better believe that pregnant character will go into labor at the most dramatic possible time — Burnett's script does on occasion honor the tough-minded insights of the Jonathan Evison novel the story is based on. In a rarity for comedies about grown adolescents, the dirty talk — coming here from Trevor — is played as the sad dodge that it is in life, the pointless yapping some guys resort to to fill the room when they don't know how else to connect. Trevor mutters about pounding a woman he sees on TV, and he tells Ben to tell the Make-a-Wish Foundation to arrange for Katy Perry to suck him off. The line isn't spoken or cut like a joke — it's a bleat of horny anger, an admission of frustration from a young man in a wheelchair who never leaves the house, much less meets young women.
Perry never turns up, but Burnett, the longtime executive producer of David Letterman's Late Show, is certainly in the wish-making business. Once they convince Elsa that they're smart enough to hit the road, the boys jaunt off to check out highway curios like the world's largest bovine. They pick up a beautiful young hitchhiker (Selena Gomez!), who is eager to flirt with Trevor and let Ben feel like a protective father. Later, they accumulate a pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson) with car trouble. Like the hitchhiker, she's more a plot device than a person — her inevitable labor is a ticking time bomb, one you just know the hero will be asked to handle. Gomez charms, offhandedly, neither actress nor character taking any of this too seriously. She smiles a lot, grooving on the boys' awkwardness, annoyed sometimes but liking them and the trip in spite of herself. In that, she's probably like most viewers.