“I Care a Lot” doesn’t care enough to figure out what it’s doing. Director/writer J Blakeson and its star, Rosamund Pike, never develop a point of view on their scammer anti-hero Marla Grayson. At times, “I Care a Lot” wants to be a gender-flipped version of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” placing a lesbian in the position of Jordan Belfort but only toning down the nastiness and cynicism a little. It’s also a nightmare about losing control over one’s destiny, a tender love story, and a satire about the intersection of feminism and capitalism. But it can’t hang on to any of these ideas for longer than five minutes.
Grayson is a scammer who uses the courts to get control over elderly women’s guardianships in Massachusetts and gain access to their assets. Jennie Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a woman perfectly capable of living on her own, is her latest victim, shuffled off to an abusive nursing home that won’t even let her walk outside. But unbeknownst to Grayson, Peterson has changed her identity to conceal her ties to the Russian mafia. Her son Roman (Peter Dinklage) discovers what has happened and sends a sleazy lawyer, Dean (Chris Messina), to sue Grayson. She winds up having to go on the run with her lover Fran (Eiza González).
“I Care a Lot” begins with a voice-over from Grayson, in which she espouses a dog-eat-dog philosophy and tells us that she started out poor and had to step on other people to find her way out. That voice-over returns near the film’s end. It lays out a view of American life as a zero-sum game with no tolerance for vulnerability or weakness: “Am I an insider or an outsider? Am I a lion or lamb? Am I a predator or prey?” It’s used to sketch in her background, which feels necessary because Pike plays the character as an ice queen whose only emotions are reserved for her lover. Both the performance and script need more nuance to show how Grayson could order an elderly woman drugged into submission and then come home and embrace Fran.
Grayson’s come-up runs into resistance from men who may be sexist jerks but actually have the moral high ground in this case. At the beginning, a schlubby guy who lost control of his mother’s custody to her calls her a “bitch” and makes rape and murder threats. When she meets with Dean, he constantly misgenders a doctor, which seems to be a deliberate microaggression. Some critics may have made claims for “I Care a Lot” as a critique of “#girlboss feminism.” Its final moments take this strand furthest, but the film isn’t sharp enough to develop real satirical bite. It is reluctant to dig beyond a set of evil characters towards the system that separates us into lions and lambs, predators and prey.
Blakeson has a knack for action scenes — he does well with one where an out-of-control car spins off the road into a lake. But all too often, he relies on a retro-synth score to cover the moments without dialogue. The film is unwilling to linger too long on its darkest implications. One could’ve made a whole movie about the victims of elder abuse, but they get lost in “I Care a Lot” because Grayson happened to accidentally choose one with real criminal connections. The mistreatment of Peterson is never exactly justified, but it’s too easy to write off all the film’s physical and emotional violence as horrible people treating other horrible people like crap.
Finally, “I Care a Lot” falls victim to the kind of cheap shot attitude that thinks giving Grayson a vaping habit makes her look more despicable. After more than 20 years of prestige TV defined by male anti-heroes, this film turns the gender balance around, as well as drawing on Scorsese and Adam McKay. But those TV shows and films, at best, had a perverse wit and an understanding of the attraction of charismatic but evil people. Grayson is just an unpleasant blank slate who is full of herself, and, for the most part, so is everyone else on screen. By the end, “I Care a Lot” cares most about setting up its characters only in order to knock them down, without giving the audience a reason why we should feel a thing if they live or die.
I CARE A LOT | Directed by J Blakeson | Now streaming on Netflix
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