I Care a Lot movie review: Rosamund Pike is delectably devious in a con movie without a conscience
Preying on the elderly is no laughing matter, but I Care a Lot proves there's no topic too grim to glean comedy from
castRosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Nicholas Logan, Damian Young, Alicia Witt
The elderly care system becomes a warped microcosm of capitalism writ large in the ironically titled I Care a Lot. "Playing fair is a joke invented by the rich to keep the rest of us poor," announces Rosamund Pike in the introductory monologue of the Netflix black comedy. Pike's Marla Grayson is a dead-eyed ice queen who swindles geriatrics for a living. Paired to a slo-mo opening sequence of cheery caregivers tending to unsuspecting geriatrics are Marla's proclamations on how there's no such thing as good people, and the world is only made up of two kinds of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs, you get where she is going. She is quick to affirm she's no lamb, but a "fucking lioness."
The binary never tracks, but it’s simple enough to be mistaken for sweeping. It's a version of that Gordon Gecko "Greed is good" spiel for 21st-century vulture capitalists. Like all "there are two kinds of people in the world" and "eat or be eaten" rhetoric, it's a binary always proclaimed with an air of superiority. In Marla's case, the value-laden assumption helps self-rationalise her predatory schemes. For if there are only two kinds of people in this world, they are those smug enough to think there are only two kinds, and those who know better.
Keeping with the theme, writer-director J Blakeson winnows down the story's scope to focus on two women on either side of the grift. On one side is obviously Marla. Together with her business partner and lover Fran (Eiza González), she has streamlined a ruthlessly efficient MO: get the elderly wards declared mentally unfit, become their court-appointed guardian, cash out their assets and pocket the profits. It's a zero-sum MO of lies, deceit and profiteering akin to that of any power broker in capitalist structures. Pike is disarmingly charming, which makes it all the more unsettling. Only in scenes alongside González do we get a glimpse of a beating heart in a heartless woman. Marla wears her precision bob, sharply tailored outfits and stiletto heels like armour, like she's always prepared for impending battle.
On the other side of the swindle is Marla's next mark: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), an oldie with seemingly no family or heir. It is harrowing to watch a perfectly lucid woman being forced out of her own home and locked up in a facility with no visitors and no cell phones. There's no way out for the old and defenceless here. As the lawyer played by Chris Messina calls it, they are "cash cows." But what starts off as another successful swindle for Marla ends up being her biggest misstep. It turns out Jennifer is no regular oldie, but has close ties with Russian mafia boss Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). With a new lion in the midst, Marla soon learns she must up her game before she becomes a casualty of her own metaphor.
Eat or be eaten is the order of the day. Predator becomes prey, and roles reverse more than once across the film's runtime. In such a game that rewards ruthlessness, Pike and Dinklage battle it out like gladiators trying to tame a lion. Marla and Roman are different faces of the same coin. One hides in plain sight, the other works from the shadows. It is a reflection of our reality where the criminal has turned corporate and the corporate criminal, making it all the more hard to gauge how much of our daily lives are in the grasp of their tentacles.
If Roman is prone to vein-popping villainy, Marla hides hers behind a smile. She is a sight to behold even when she’s trying to justify her amorality. Even when she tries to convince us her villainy is born out of necessity, not want. The fact that Marla and Roman are irredeemable is part of what makes the movie enjoyable. To an extent at least. Because Blakeson's satirical aspirations are a swindle in itself, sheen that tries to convince us the movie is a lot more scathing than it really is. In the third-act pivot towards Marla and Roman's feud, the plot develops a wrinkle too many, its satirical barbs lose their sting, and the shlocky denouement prevents the film from delivering a sucker punch to the healthcare system.
Blakeson assembles a gallery of crafty deplorables yet never editorialises in judgment. Marla is able to exploit the elderly because the system allows it. She pays the doctor to falsely diagnose the elderly. The lawyers are indifferent, the judge is unsuspecting, and the nurses are too underpaid to care. What makes the whole thing frightening is Marla is operating within the confines of a malleable legal framework. As the CEOs of all the Fortune 500 companies will attest, if you can oil the right gears of the capitalist machine, you can keep it running smoothly indefinitely, and no one will care. Marla's "if everyone's stealing, why not join in" philosophy thus reinforces capitalism's strange hold over us.
Preying on the elderly is no laughing matter, but I Care a Lot proves there's no topic too grim to glean comedy from. Viewers may be conflicted whether to laugh with abandon or tremble with indignation, and may end up doing both. But even the laughs will be tempered with the sobering realism of a dog-eat-dog world which renders the elderly most vulnerable. In an exchange between Marla and Messina's lawyer, he says, “If your whole enterprise isn’t the perfect example of the American Dream, I don’t know what is.” In a movie that deals in plenty of binaries, it's perhaps the only singular truth.
I Care a Lot is now streaming on Netflix.
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