I Care a Lot
(SPOILERS) And it starts so well too. J Blakeson’s movie sets out its stall as a merciless satire on greed; sociopath Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), from a line of sociopaths, makes her money manipulating the legal system to gain guardianship of the elderly, whom she then fleeces. Until she picks the wrong mark, that is: the mother (Dianne Wiest) of a Russian mobster (Peter Dinklage). The scenario’s potential, that of ruthless villain squaring off against ruthless villain, is fertile, and for a while I Care a Lot does indeed move along quite deliriously. And then it runs out of gas.
Marla’s narration begins with a string of cynical maxims – “Trust me, there’s no such thing as good people”; “Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor”; “There are two types of people in the world. The people who take and those getting took” – and proceeds to practice what she preaches as we witness her success in denying Feldstrom (Macon Blair) all access to his mother before a sympathetic judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr).
It’s a smart play, the devil posing as an angel – “This is what I do. All day, every day. I care” – and one might easily see in Marla a metaphor for the state. And not just in respect of care for the elderly, but rather, the ability to crush any and all opposition to abuse and tyranny. “Yeah, I’d fucking fight” Damian Young’s Sam Rice tells Marla in response to the prospect of being divested of all agency, freedom and wealth: “You say that, but at heart, most of us are weak, compliant and scared” she replies. That would be the world right now in a nutshell (indeed, Rice namechecks the Milgram Experiment, which proved exactly that).
The utter ruthlessness with which Marla views the elderly as commodities, selecting prospects from a range of photos on her office wall and running her business as if its dealing in real estate (which, to a degree, it is), is obviously a none-too-subtle satire of the capitalist motive. As such, Marla Grayson follows in the wake of Gordon Gekko, Patrick Bateman and Jordan Belfort. But while I Care a Lot’s conceptual audaciousness is admirable, it’s a little too accurate to be truly funny. And then there’s that, ice-cold as she is, there’s very little of “love-to-hate” about Marla, which is crucial when it comes to the third act’s developments. She and confederate Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) are so utterly devoid of empathy or basic human decency that their comeuppance is to be richly deserved. And for a while, it looks as if it will be, via a clash of soulless titans.
Dean: I’m happy for you to keep milking these poor, vulnerable people as long as you do. Well played. Hell, if your whole enterprise isn’t the perfect example of the American dream, I don’t know what is.
Dinklage is on good form as Roman Lunyov. Roman has faked his death, and that of his mother Jennifer Peterson (Wiest), in order that he may continue unchecked in the drug trade (we briefly witness his casual attitude towards human life, in reference to losing three mules in the last transit). The manner in which Marla runs rings around smirking Mob lawyer Dean (Chris Messina) is very funny (and Messina’s performance is a hoot). Wiest is outstanding as Jennifer, struggling through the sheer bewildering horror of having her home and freedom snatched away from her, denied basic rights and drugged up to the eyeballs.
Jennifer: He’ll kill you next.
Marla: I don’t lose. I won’t lose. I’m never letting you go. I own you. And I will drain you of your money, your comfort and your self respect. Because your people didn’t play by the rules.
But this is where I Care a Lot goes off the rails. It should, in the end – for it to carry any real bite – arrive at the victim’s catharsis. When Marla threatens the uncooperative Jennifer with “I can make things very bad for you” and the reply comes “Then have at it, you little crock of cunt. Have at it”, that’s the rallying cry to battle. Instead, following a had-it-coming attempted strangulation, Jennifer barely features in the rest of the picture, denied the revenge she deserves and that we, the audience, have been manoeuvred into expecting. Indeed, it’s particularly egregious that Roman and Marla should go into business together, but Jennifer never utters a disconcerted peep.
The much less impactful and de rigueur morality-play justice is served by Chekov’s Feldstrom – if a Feldstrom appears in the first act, he will be used in the last, you can bet on it – with Marla dying in Fran’s arms. There’s also something vaguely distasteful in a virtue-signalling sense in the way Blakeson appears to believe he’s promoting strong women as Fran survives an attempted Mob hit and take revenge. If he was really interested in pursuing such messages, he wouldn’t have put Jennifer in the corner. Instead, he piles absurd development upon absurd development in order to establish how unparalleled Marla is in capability (can you say Mary Sue?) This requires the Russian Mob being so inept as to botch not one but two hits and running the kind of security operation the average 7-Eleven would put to shame.
The other problem is that we’re now stuck with at least half an hour of straight thriller mechanics, which represents a serious loss of confidence for a movie that has hitherto so effectively nailed its blackly comic intentions to the mast. By the time the dust has settled, the chain of care homes partnership between Roman and Marla is a disappointingly pat development, and the justice served rather vanilla.
Blakeson directs entirely serviceably and the performances are all more than solid (with the caveat that Pike needed to appeal beyond the mere hateable, and Wiest outclasses everyone). Alicia Witt shows up as doctor (furnishing Marla with everything she needs on a prospect, “All except the test results. That wouldn’t be ethical”), and Nicholas Logan comes on like a young Crispin Glover as one of Roman’s lieutenants (the farcically botched care home break is perhaps the high point of the movie). I Care a Lot disappoints, but mainly because it promises a lot more than it cares to deliver.