I Care a Lot, now on Netflix, is one of those movies where the female lead (Rosamund Pike) is hellishly aggressive from the get-go, with her severe chop-chop bob to her dark sunglasses, to her slo-mo stride and constant side-mouth vaping.
Golden Globe winner Pike plays Marla Grayson, a con woman who’s skilled at convincing judges to award her legal guardianship over wealthy seniors, the better to empty their homes, sell off their assets, and drain their bank accounts before anyone gets wise.
She’s got a high-powered staff that researches which seniors have the most idle assets to pillage, and she does it all with a certain lethal style, along with the complicity of a doctor (Alicia Witt) who’s willing to declare the elderly marks incapable of taking care of themselves, a retirement home staff willing to play along, taking away seniors’ cell phones and gladly upping med dosages to keep them doped up and compliant, and a lover (Eiza Gonzalez) who’s as morally bankrupt as she is.
The next stop is a sympathetic judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who rules in Marla’s favor, and the con is on, as she and her partner sell off furniture and raid their targets’ assets before the rightful heirs even know what’s going on.
It’s tempting to see ‘I Care a Lot’ as a harmless, entertaining, cynical black comedy about modern greed and ruthlessness, and nothing more.
Pike is frighteningly effective, but she’s nearly overmatched by one mark who won’t go gentle into that good night: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) lives alone in a lovely house and is clearly functional and independent when Marla decides to take over her life and throw her in the senior booby hatch. Turns out Marla picked the wrong mark, because even under heavy sedation, Jennifer icily warns the con artist, through narrowed eyes, that she’s in biiiig trouble.
What starts out as a classic revenge farce — an innocent old lady turns out to be not so innocent after all — turns into something a little bit less than the sum of its parts, through no fault of a very good cast.
Wiest is great here, though underused, and Pike is clearly able to tap some of that ruthless Tilda Swinton badass mojo (remember her in Gone Girl?). But it’s Peter Dinklage as a certain underworld associate who brings his A-game to every scene.
They’re all fun to watch, and it’s tempting to see I Care a Lot as a harmless, entertaining, cynical black comedy about modern greed and ruthlessness, à la Billions, and nothing more.
But it has problems. It exists in the same kind of amoral vortex as many cynical comedies now dwell, merely positing that the world is a scummy place in which there are only “predators and prey,” “lions and sheep.” Trumpian times, in other words.
This would be fine, if English director/screenwriter J Blakeson were willing to stick to his guns and go as dark as he blithely portrays the world to be. Instead, there’s a feeble third act that asks us to sympathize with someone who has coldly cut off seniors’ painkillers, taken a baseball bat and a taser to those trying to rescue them, and maliciously maneuvered the law to cut off relatives from seeing their own parents.
It’s a lot, and Pike sinks her teeth into this devilish role, making it impossible not to watch Marla; but as written, it’s hard to find any reason to side with her.
We learn nothing of Marla’s back story, so we never really learn why she’s such a greedy monster. She never gains our sympathy, and ultimately she’s someone we just don’t care a lot about. She just seems to like being in power, and using her power over others. Within this moral vacuum, it’s hard to find any meaning in her actions or their consequences. When the deus ex machina judgment does arrive, it feels tacked on, like Marla’s severe haircut. All nasty style, no substance.
For what it’s worth, I Care a Lot does demonstrate Netflix’s attention to diversity in its characters, however morally shady. The streaming service recently released a report prepared by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative showing its own 2018-19 programming had better representation — both in front of, and behind the camera — in terms of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, Specific Racial/Ethnic Groups, LGBTQ and Characters With Disabilities than years past.
Certainly, I Care a Lot featured lesbian and Latinx characters, as well as Russian-type characters, doing very bad things.
Compare this with another movie recently shown on Netflix about an amoral white dude: 2018’s The Mule, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.
In it, Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a retired Korean War vet who finds a new job as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. Earl was an avid horticulturist who breezed by on charm, but estranged himself from his wife (Dianne Wiest again!) and family, missing all of their major life events over the years.
After losing his flower business because of the internet (home delivery, y’all), he’s desperately in need of extra cash. So when his granddaughter’s wedding guest offers him a driving gig — no questions asked — Earl takes the offer.
Soon Earl is puttering into a garage full of Armalite-wielding Mexicans at the Texas border, sent out to drive a pickup packed with drugs north to Michigan, where he’s paid with an envelope stuffed with cash.
I have to admit, I’ve grown to appreciate Eastwood as an actor in his senior years. Yes, that grizzled white guy shtick has grown on me, from playing the gruff old coach to Hilary Swank’s scrappy boxer in Million Dollar Baby, to his role in Gran Torino as a casually racist, crusty Korean War vet who helps local Hmong immigrants take on gangs in LA, to this recent outing, filmed back when Eastwood was already 87(!).
Whether singing along to jazz standards over the car radio even as DEA agents are hot on his trail, making pitstops during his drug runs for the “best pulled-pork sandwich in the country,” or helping out his cash-poor friends with debts like a geriatric, cartel-friendly Robin Hood, Earl is a hoot, and all kinds of forgivable.
A lot of the charm and effectiveness comes from Eastwood’s advanced age (doesn’t know a text message from a burrito, can’t help being un-PC) and his ability to ease his way out of most sticky situations. He never loses his cool, even when a K-9 dog is sniffing around his trunk full of drugs during a routine highway pullover.
Part of this comes from white privilege, and Earl/Eastwood is cannily aware of it. Cops don’t harass him, but they do focus on the two Mexican cartel guys who are “babysitting” him on a test road run. Earl waves his white hand, and the cop’s questions melt away. White privilege, y’all!
A lot of the charm and effectiveness comes from Eastwood’s advanced age (doesn’t know a text message from a burrito, can’t help being un-PC) and his ability to ease his way out of most sticky situations.
An impressive supporting cast — including Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Andy Garcia and Laurence Fishburne — gets little to do here other than chase Earl as he ups the ante, carrying bigger loads and increasing his risk.
Yet, unlike I Care a Lot, we understand Earl’s plight — technology killed his business, but his indifference towards his family was all on him — and we totally buy into the consequences he faces. He’s a flawed character, but at least he’s a well-drawn one, not a one-dimensional villain with no back story to latch onto, like Marla.
As he usually does in his films, Eastwood calls into question our easy assumptions about American heroes and villains. Sure, beneath it all is a bedrock layer of American conservatism: his heroes are the types who don’t apologize for their old-fashioned ways (he is Dirty Harry, after all). But they often end up changed in some fundamental way.
Earl is more than just a lolo who’s breaking bad; he’s yet another pulse-take on the changing world, seen through this director’s squinting eyes.
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Both The Mule and I Care a Lot are on Netflix.
Banner and thumbnail caption: Eiza Gonzalez and Rosamund Pike squeeze Dianne Wiest in I Care a Lot.