Not too long into ‘I Care a Lot’, a comic thriller with a delectably hard shell and a soft, hollow center, you might wonder if someone managed to slip in an outtake or two from ‘Gone Girl’. Like that earlier tale of crime and punishment, though with less gore and more glib, the movie stars Rosamund Pike as a woman whose impeccable poise and radiant smile could fool you into overlooking some of her other attributes: ruthless persistence, killer negotiation skills and a quiet mastery of the long con.
Even Pike’s breathily cynical narration seems to channel her ‘Gone Girl’ monologues, though the tough Hobbesian worldview she advances here could have used a sharper rewrite: “There’s two types of people in this world,” she notes early on, “the people who take and those getting took.”
Those are the words of Marla Grayson (Pike), a taker and proud of it. She runs a lucrative scam as a court-appointed (but really self-imposed) guardian for elderly wards of the state, and as such she has a smooth bedside manner and a gift for coaxing others into submission, the viewer included. Even when she scoffs in our direction (“You think you’re good people? You’re not good people”), the insult isn’t meant to shame us so much as liberate us.
Sit back, the movie insists, and enjoy the guilt-free spectacle of horrible people doing horrible things to arguably even more horrible people, then having still more horrible things done to them in return, and so on and so on until the hand of fate or God or the writer-director J Blakeson swoops in to settle scores and divvy up the spoils.
And for a while at least, Blakeson makes enjoyment easy enough, aided by a lead actor with an undeniable knack for slick, conspiratorial villainy. In this movie’s vision of present-day America as a late-capitalist shark tank, Marla is an unusually sleek and lethal barracuda.
With the help of Fran (Eiza González), her partner in crime and romance, plus key accomplices at hospitals and assisted-living facilities, Marla targets wealthy older individuals who are too sick and helpless — or who, with a little creative paperwork, can be made to look too sick and helpless — to handle their personal affairs. She effectively takes them captive, divesting them of their assets and turning a tidy profit for all involved. None of which makes Marla an easy character to root for, which would be less of a problem if ‘I Care a Lot’ didn’t so clearly want you to root for her.
Being lured into a sense of complicity with unapologetically evil people is one of the reliable pleasures of the movies, but wanting the robbers to pull off a heist is a far cry from, you know, cheering on elder abuse. The movie, perhaps realizing the difficulty of the assignment, preemptively stacks the deck in Marla’s favor.
When a plaintiff, Feldstrom (Macon Blair), rails against Marla for denying him access to his mother, her well-practiced, level-headed response — that she takes better care of her charges than their own children do, because she actually gets paid to do it — is meant to elicit your outrage, yes, but also your laughter and, eventually, your grudging admiration. It helps that Feldstrom is presented as a ranting, emasculated loser with a violent streak, all the better for Marla to position herself, none too persuasively, as some kind of feminist avenger — and also to keep you from thinking too hard about the human consequences of her ruse.
That fraught initial confrontation sets a pattern for the rest of the movie. Blakeson likes to underline Marla’s audacity, her determination to win at any cost, only to turn around and emphasise her vulnerability, forcing her into deadly situations that are invariably of her own making. Her next unsuspecting target is a woman named Jennifer (Dianne Wiest, gimlet-eyed as ever), who is identified, in guardian-grifter lingo, as a “cherry” — an ideal mark, with a beautiful house, serious savings and no apparent family. But not long after this perfectly healthy, capable woman is declared incompetent and locked up in a nursing home, in scenes that are inescapably upsetting to watch, it becomes alarmingly clear that she’s not the docile, no-strings-attached target she appeared.
I’ll tread lightly around the plot from here, since nasty surprises — and Marla’s uncanny ability to anticipate and sometimes intercept them — are part of the putative fun. A few colorful supporting players turn up, among them a sleazeball lawyer (a terrific, underused Chris Messina) and, in time, a powerful gangster, Roman (an amusing Peter Dinklage), who has a foul temper that he always seems to rein in at the last minute. Not unlike Marla, Roman doesn’t really want to see the world burn or make anyone suffer beyond the requisite collateral damage. He just wants to run his racket and earn his millions, and he doesn’t understand why everyone around him insists on making that so difficult.
He and Marla make nifty odd-couple adversaries, signaled by their physical disparities and contrasting vices. (She vapes incessantly; he likes high-end pastries.) But the amiable rogues’ gallery aside, ‘I Care a Lot’ is pretty much a one-woman show for Pike, who works in a constricted emotional range but a boundless physical one. In her courtroom scenes she’s like a sentinel, standing tall and never putting a foot or an argument wrong, with a perfectly cut bob that frames her face like an ancient war helmet. A later hospital scene finds her even more in her element: a Nurse Ratched in high heels.
More chameleonlike shades, in other words, of ‘Gone Girl’ — which, incidentally, would have made a fine alternate title for Blakeson’s 2009 debut feature, ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’. Here, as in that crafty abduction thriller, the director savors the mechanics of entrapment and escape; he delights in putting his characters through the wringer and watching them wriggle their way out. Along with his uniformly sharp collaborators — they include cinematographer Doug Emmett, editor Mark Eckersley and composer Marc Canham, who wrote the synth-heavy score — he fashions ‘I Care a Lot’ into a swift, engrossing exercise in suspense, propelled by busy, outlandish twists from which you can glean the occasional flash of satire or emotion.
Those flashes are welcome; they’re also not quite enough. You’ve likely read a thing or two recently about crooked conservatorships in the celebrity sphere, though whether those headlines make ‘I Care a Lot’ seem like an unusually topical entertainment or expose it as a thin, opportunistic hustle is open to debate. The movie itself seems confused on the matter: It belatedly tries to grow a heart in its closing scenes, tossing off its snarky, self-satisfied cynicism and making a half-hearted lurch toward catharsis. It wants you to care, more than it cares to admit.
Don’t miss it!
‘I CARE A LOT’ is now streaming on Netflix.