Kinda Sorta Social Satire: A Review of “I Care A Lot”
Let’s be honest, satire is probably the hardest genre to truly pull off successfully. Most masterclass examples of satire are either untouchable classics like Dr. Strangelove or fantastic pieces of work that satirized their subject so well that they tragically became enveloped into the very organism they were poking fun at like Fight Club. It’s the kind of genre where every step the storytellers take is part of a balancing act on a tightrope smaller than a piece of string. So I guess I can’t really blame the new Netflix neo-noir/dark comedy/caper/satire I Care A Lot that much when it decides about two acts into its running time that it doesn’t want to be sociopolitical satire anymore, and would rather just have fun as a throwback to late nineties/early 2000s crime thrillers aping off all the wrong lessons taken from early Guy Ritchie and Tarantino movies.
I Care A Lot starts out strongly enough. It slickly and effortlessly sets up our main anti-heroine, a sociopath by the name of Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) who preys upon a niche market of human blood that’s been forgotten by everyone else: The Elderly. Marla Grayson is a vampire who finds retired, elderly citizens that are in need of hospice care, with no family, and then appoints herself their legal guardian, and in turn, sucks them dry of all their money and property. In the opening sequence, we see Marla Grayson at the top of her game as she toys with the legal system to keep Feldstrom (Macon Blair) away from his mother in the rest home, arguing as the woman’s legal guardian, that her son only upsets her on his visits.
As writer/director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) takes us through Marla’s daily routine, we start to get a feel of where this movie is headed thematically. This is going to be a tale of sugar-coated capitalist corruption, an examination of a predatory system that feeds upon those too infirm to stick up for themselves, with no one around to care about their wellbeing. A story of how we treat the elderly in our modern society. It especially looks that way when Marla and her partner in both business and romance, Fran (Eiza González) take on their next big project: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), an elderly woman, well off, no living relatives to speak of, living alone, but perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Marla bends the court and an oblivious judge (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) to her will and establishes herself as Peterson’s new legal guardian. That’s when things start to take a turn.
It turns out that Jennifer Peterson actually does have connections to someone on the outside, someone Marla and Fran missed in their research because he’s technically dead: a drug kingpin by the name of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), and he’s not happy at all to find out his “mother” has been put into a home by a newly court-appointed legal guardian, especially since that legal guardian is now in the possession of some rare diamonds hidden away in Peterson’s safety deposit box. What proceeds through the rest of the film is a battle of wits between two criminal masterminds, Marla and Roman, as they wrestle to keep the other firmly underneath their own thumb.
This is admittedly a lot of fun, especially since both Pike and Dinklage are having an absolute ball with their despicable characters and it shows. The issue with this sudden narrative left turn is that after a while, Jennifer Peterson, and the satire about the American elderly care system, are mostly tossed aside as an afterthought. It’s frustrating that the movie doesn’t seem to have anything more to say on the matter aside from its surface-level message of “Hey, isn’t this messed up?” Yes, it is, but you have to dig into it more for the satire to truly work. The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too by bringing the message full circle by the end, but it doesn’t stick the landing at all. What sticks is the power dynamic between these two leads.
The frustrating, muddled message aside, I Care A Lot still has plenty going for it. Writer/director J. Blakeson crafts some spectacular scenes and sequences with rat-a-tat dialogue and Fincher-esque montages with wonderful candy-colored visuals by Doug Emmett (Sorry To Bother You) set to an undeniably catchy score by Marc Canham (Close) that wears its Reznor & Ross influences on its sleeves.
I Care A Lot’s second big secret weapon is wielded with great power by Blakeson. He has garnered an all-star cast, in both lead and supporting roles, and just about everyone gets their chance to shine. Dinklage brings a severe gravitas to his role, a strange sort of melancholy that makes you start to root for the guy after a bit, even if that makes you uneasy, but he still brings an appropriate amount of dark humor to his portrayal, and it’s such a relief to see Dinklage in a humorous role that doesn’t even remotely try to use his height for some kind of cheap joke. Dianne Wiest has her natural sweet-natured charm but also gets to have fun with a devilishly playful side underneath. Chris Messina as a smarmy lawyer, Eiza González as Marla’s Take-No-Shit lover, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr. as a befuddled judge, every actor is cast to perfection, which goes especially for Rosamund Pike, for better or for worse.
A lot of Marla Grayson seems rooted in Pike’s immortal performance as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. But it doesn’t feel like stunt casting. Pike brings enough personality and emotion to the performance to keep it out of retreading waters she’s been in before. She’s obviously challenging herself, but here’s hoping she doesn’t start getting typecast as the cool, calm, collected, possibly sociopathic woman with something hidden up her sleeves at every possible moment. The two sides of Marla Grayson seem to reflect the two stories of the film. We’re presented with a despicable capitalist monster in the first act, and by the second act, the film is asking us to root for her into victory. It’s a strange, uneasy balancing act that doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s certainly impressive, and Pike carries it all the way to the end of the tightrope. In the end, Marla Grayson’s proclamation of victory feels like it’s coming from Rosamund Pike more than it does the character she’s portraying, saying “I can make anything work to my advantage, just give me one shot at it.”