There are lots of reasons you can not care for a movie: a premise done a million times; a screenplay full of clichés; hacky acting; ugly, clumsy camera work.
I Care a Lot has none of those issues. It’s an original story idea based in a part of our culture we rarely see in movies. The writing is clever and cracking. The acting committed beyond what many performers would feel comfortable adding to their resume. The direction is sly and cinematography stylish as hell. Even the music is wisely restrained.
Technically, it’s terrific. Why this can still be a ‘bad’ film to me comes down to its tonal hollowness. Granted, I watched it the night after I saw Nomadland, so the 180 really threw me. And there are ‘pitch black comedy/thrillers’ (the kind of labored description used for films like this) that I’ve enjoyed.
But I Care a Lot takes a genuinely disturbing issue – the systemic, physical and psychological abuse of the elderly – and says “there’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just use it as set-up for a crazy thriller.” Some will argue that the lead’s exaggerated cruelty serves to highlight just how evil the system can be, but the film keeps undermining this conceit by trying to give us reasons to root for that lead.
Warning: spoilers ahead. But then this is a movie gleefully wallowing in its spoil, so…
The film opens soberly, in a court hearing where a son argues that he’s being denied access to his mother, who’s being interred against her will by her court-appointed guardian. We feel for the guy and his unseen mother, which makes us question whether this can really happen or if it’s exaggerated for the plot. A little digging says it is accurate. Courts can indeed give legal guardians a shocking amount of power over an elderly person’s life, without ever hearing direct witness from that elderly person. Family can appear – or be made to appear – either naïve or opportunistic about the diminished condition of an elderly relative, with the impartial courts as the only way to insure their safety. It’s a tragic situation, and we enter the story with disgust for the villainous protagonist taking advantage of it.
Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike with the commitment mentioned earlier, is that villain. Introduced in a form-fitting red dress and a blonde bob so severe she could cut your throat just by turning her head, she is clearly the devil in Nikita disguise. Why does someone who cares for the elderly have to look dowdy, this movie challenges us. OK, cool, we say, because it’s Rosemund Pike in great accessories. And why wouldn’t the Black male judge be such putty in the hands of this gorgeous white woman, the movie challenges us. Ok, cool, we say, because…actually not cool at all, but let’s move on.
Marla has built a successful business out of her guardianship con, with doctors and elderly care facilities and gullible Black male judges complicit. As Marla returns from her court triumph over the distraught son, we meet a young woman who appears to be her assistant, and secretly hope there’s more to the relationship because this actress is haw-haw-haw-hawttt.
Our hopes are realized! Marla and Fran (Eiza Gonzales) are doin’ it, and Fran is a partner in the scamming. They get their crooked lady doctor friend – who is also hot though we don’t know her sexual preferences – to pass them one of her patients, a prime target referred to as a ‘cherry’. Pop! go our devious duo.
Jennifer (Diane Wiest) is a wealthy retiree with no family, who has recently shown some minimal memory loss, which the doctor can exaggerate to recommend guardianship. We then get to see Marla’s process unfold. It is ugly, involving psychological abuse that turns physical later.
She immediately sequesters Jennifer in a care facility run by an accomplice, who drugs the old woman into compliance. While clearing out Jennifer’s assets for auction, the proceeds of which will go mostly into her own pockets, Marla discovers a fortune in undocumented loose diamonds hidden in a safe deposit box. Jennifer has a secret, and it shows up in the form of Russian mobster Roman (Peter Dinklage, thankfully sans Russian accent).
The story gets briefly shadowed by The Good Liar, in which Helen Mirren plays a seemingly helpless older woman who proves to be duplicitous. I Care a Lot quickly dodges, though, putting Jennifer under further abuse as Marla uses her in a battle of wills with Roman.
The bleak, cynical tone shifts to dark comedy/thriller. Despicable as they are, Marla and Fran are devoted to each other, and so, so hot, that maybe we’ll root for them. They’re aided by the depiction of the mobsters, who aren’t the ruthless, efficient Russian mob we get in movies like Eastern Promises, but more like the crew from Barry, so hapless that Marla can easily beat them.
Marla is supposed to be an irredeemable villain, but a great actress can’t help but to nuance a character. Pike lets barely perceptible flashes of concern cross her rigid features when threatened, and suggests a genuine love in her exchanges with Fran. As movie-goers, our demand for justice, for an evil character to get their comeuppance, is ingrained. Pike taunts us with this, her performance trying to unbalance our righteous indignation. As in Gone Girl, she challenges the way we see unflattering female characters.
After convenient escapes from the jaws of death/defeat, Marla and Fran manage to incapacitate Roman, who, being a mobster, has wiped out ways for the system to trace him. He is left a John Doe, and what does the system do with incapacitated John Does? It assigns them a legal guardian. Cut to Marla’s fabulous, knife-sharp stilettoes propped up on Roman’s hospital bed. This sounds like just the right ending for a movie like this. But it’s not.
Marla and Roman make a deal, and she turns her scam global, upping her clientele of abused elderlies and their families from a few dozen to thousands. Her evil is swollen to hideous proportions as a seeming comment on rabid capitalism. How are we supposed to react to this?
Imagine how this gonzo, farcical tone would play if instead of elderly abuse, Marla was running a scam involving caging immigrants at the border with the complicity of local authorities and ICE. Both tragedies are all too real, so why is one of them ok as fodder for this style of filmic treatment but the other not?
Does a well-written plot and committed performance keep you watching? Yes. But as we’ve seen so much lately with tech billionaires and teflon politicians, you can admire the cleverness of something and still find it gross.
I Care a Lotis streaming on Netflix.