Netflix's “I Care A Lot” Isn’t The Movie It Thinks It Is

The Golden Globe–nominated film takes on guardianship fraud but becomes disturbingly nihilistic.

I Care a Lot, Netflix’s new movie starring Rosamund Pike, has garnered a lot of excitement. The movie leaped to the summit of Netflix’s top 10, a big accomplishment for a non-franchise original film from the streaming service. Critics are all in too, calling it “shockingly funny,” “wildly entertaining,” and a “searing swipe at late-stage capitalism.” Some people have even made fan art (honestly, really good fan art) celebrating the work, and Pike is a frontrunner at this weekend’s Golden Globes for her performance.

The buzz about the movie is not a surprise. I Care a Lot appears to wade into a shocking topic, building on stories like this startling and infuriating 2017 New Yorker investigation into conservatorship abuse of older adults. The film also bears all the hallmarks of our reigning affection for a good scammer tale: It has the cool aesthetics, the reveal of a loophole to be exploited, and the heart-pounding exhilaration of waiting for the scammer’s downfall. But underneath it all, I Care a Lot is frustrating and vacuous, all setup and no follow-through, a movie so unsure of what it wants to be that it ends up amounting to very little.

The film follows Marla Grayson (Pike), who’s concocted a terrifying but mostly legal scam: She bribes medical professionals to declare older people legally unfit to look after themselves and then fools gullible judges into appointing her as their legal guardian. Once she becomes their guardian, she places them in nursing homes, often against their will, and immediately sets about liquidating their assets to pay herself. Enter: the glamour. Marla lives well, drives nice cars, has a sharp bob, and wears incredible, bold suits. She and her business partner and lover Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) are the picture of sexy, sophisticated living. Their scam is going great!

But Marla’s grift takes an unexpected turn when a slimy doctor (Alicia Witt) helps her land a “cherry,” an older woman who’s extremely rich and has no family. Marla believes she’s hit the jackpot after she’s appointed to be the guardian for Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), who, it turns out, is not who she says she is, and uh oh she’s connected to the Russian Mafia, led by the powerful crime boss Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage).

The first 30 minutes of I Care a Lot are deeply compelling. The initial sequences showing Marla at work are breathtaking — the fake look of distress on her face in court as she agrees to take on another ward and the chilling veneer of performative concern with which she takes over a victim’s home are stunning. You are reminded over and over again that not only is she allowed to do this, but the state enables her and thanks her, and the police stand ready to assist her. Pike is devastating in these scenes as she displays court documents, rhymes off legalese that sounds very official and by the book, and flashes an unnerving smile.

The start of I Care a Lot even goes to great lengths to depict the elaborate nature and reach of Marla’s grim operation: She has an office with an assistant who will validate your parking, a big wall of victims currently in her “care,” and nursing home directors who revere her. She has all the appearances of respectability in her field, and this itself is enough of an indictment of the system she manipulates.

But about 30 minutes in, I Care a Lot disintegrates into three different films. The second — the longest and most draining of them — is a tacky and glossy caper, a criminal-versus-criminal story where Marla is the underdog taking on the big bad crime syndicate. The heavy stylizing from writer-director J Blakeson, while gorgeous, does little to prevent the film from devolving into a cartoonish cliché (I swear to god if I see one more kidnapping scene backlit by the hired muscle’s headlights, I am going to lose it). The third film wedged in here is an irritatingly long music video montage featuring an elaborate escape filmed in beautiful Instagram aesthetics. (There is also a fourth film, which is whatever movie Chris Messina thinks he’s in. Messina plays a lawyer representing the mob, but he is tonally and visually in his own world, not in conversation with Pike and the rest of the cast.)

Throughout its pivots, I Care a Lot maintains a boring ambivalence about its main character. On the one hand, it wants you to hate Marla, and this isn’t hard to do. On the other hand, it wants you to root for her — surely this is the purpose of the pointed voiceovers and the time spent building her interiority — but it forgets to fuse her with even the most basic elements of an antihero: no relatability entry point or flicker of humanity. The only insight you get into her motivation is that she wants to be rich, like, really rich, and my dude, so do I. That’s not a personality.

Throughout its pivots, I Care a Lot maintains a boring ambivalence about its main character. 

“To make it in this country, you need to be brave — and stupid and ruthless and focused,” she says in an important scene. “Because playing fair, being scared, that gets you nowhere. That gets you beat.” This is about as close as the movie gets to offering a hint of an explanation as to why Marla is the way she is. It’s all hollow and meaningless #girlboss platitudes, and when Marla appears to be facing imminent death, you might find yourself feeling...absolutely nothing.

The lack of coherence is really a shame because the cast is incredibly gifted. Pike revives her disquieting Gone Girl menace to terrifying effect. Wiest as Jennifer is badass as fuck (and should’ve been the center of this film). Dinklage does what he can to bring a kitschy part to life. But they are not served by a script that wants to tug in all directions at the same time.

Blakeson told a radio interviewer that the idea for the film came from reading “real-life news reports of predatory guardians.” He said he became “horrified and fascinated” by the stories but decided that “some subjects are too horrible to face head-on; it’s almost like looking too directly into the sun.” His workaround for this was to “tell the story quite honestly at the beginning” before turning the film into this thriller story. Blakeson got the first part right. But the pivot is so abrupt, the departure so extreme, that it gives the impression that the film was never seriously interested in exploring elder abuse, just in using it as a vehicle to get to a hollow thriller that exploits American culture’s obsession with scammers.

Plus, the timing of the movie is really unfortunate. It is not I Care a Lot’s fault that it is arriving in the middle of a global pandemic that has brutally exposed the neglect with which we treat older adults. Nor is it the movie’s fault that it premiered a couple of weeks after a documentary on Britney Spears’ conservatorship sparked calls for a reckoning about the ways the current system takes power from people with disabilities.

But nor can the movie be divorced from these stories. It can’t help but be in conversation with those issues at a time when taking the topic head-on has an added urgency. And to that end, when I Care a Lot comes to speak, it ultimately has little to say. Its poignant first act does well to expose the contours of the issue and sets up a promising excavation of the failures of the state to protect older people. But then — nothing.

That plot point was used to get into a boring Mafia story, and then it’s parked for the rest of the film. When the loop is finally closed on the first act, the resolution is left to a misogynistic minor character and feels like a forced ending rather than a meaningful conclusion. “Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor,” Marla complains in a voiceover. It’s exactly the kind of meaningless sentiment I Care a Lot is invested in, at the expense of the rich soil it initially plants and promptly abandons. And if the film itself doesn’t care to deliver on its own promise, it’s hard to imagine why we should care at all. ●

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