Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, and Rosamund Pike in I Care A Lot (2020)
“This is my job. This is what I do all day, every day. I care.”
In the film I Care A Lot, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) knows how to manipulate everyone in her court. She swindles for a living, preying on the vulnerable for profit and power. On her meteoric rise to power as a legal guardian who drains the savings of elderly people, there is no line Marla won’t cross to make money. Capitalizing on her privilege and leaving her morals at the door, she cheats the legal system in a disturbing game she created within the rise of senior care homes. Writer-director J Blakeson’s twisted spiderweb of a story unfolds as a cheeky crime drama that sees how far characters will go to get what they want. Pike commands the screen with a firecracker performance that makes the film engaging to watch unfold. Marla is a complex anti-hero who does despicable things, is incredibly easy to root against at any given moment, and the filmmakers present her as she is. A character playing a character, to convince people she cares. A super-achieving woman who makes horrible choices and maintains investment, as countless male protagonists in films have done over the years. Discarded on the path of destruction Marla leaves behind are the people she traps under her guardianship. Grounded in the unfortunate reality that the elderly are systemically taken advantage of, this subject matter resonates in the film, despite getting lost sometimes in the mafia/crime boss structure. I Care A Lot is a fun bona fide ride that channels compromising ambition and anger at the world into brazen entertainment.
To stay technically within the law, Marla convinces Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) that her targeted victims are no longer able to care for themselves. She then shows up at their homes with a court order appointing her full conservatorship, and immediately escorts them to a care facility. When a vacancy pops up on her elderly ward, Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) seize a golden goose of an opportunity. Their new “cherry” to pick is Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy retiree with early signs of memory loss and no heirs or family. But Jennifer is more than who she appears to be, and Marla meets a dangerous new player in her game. The characters in this film epitomize multiple themes, from dark ambition and moral compromise to conservatorship and the weaponized power of authority. Marla follows in the crooked footsteps of those with the most power, laughing off the notion that anyone who reached success did so without bending the rules. She scoffs at the idea that people have to lead with honesty and work hard for their money. In her eyes, she deserves success and believes there is no such thing as good people, which gives her even more fuel to leave damage in her wake.
To the detriment of the film, so much is going on without a real clinch on it all. The screenplay goes off the rails at times, particularly with the mafia plot and drawn out introductions to characters of that world including a crooked lawyer (Chris Messina in great suits), some henchmen, and the boss himself Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). Though while not nearly as resonating as the characters in Marla's personal orbit, there is a cleverness in matching Lunyov with Marla and seeing just how far she’s willing to go in the face of the Russian mob. So much of the relationship between these two characters speaks to what the filmmaker presents about Marla’s fearlessness, tenacity, and ambition.
To quote Rosamund Pike, “Marla was everything [she’s] wanted to see in a woman on screen, someone allowed to be all the things that men have always been allowed to be — ruthless, ambitious, striving for what she wants shamelessly — unambiguously.” Pike’s wicked charisma and no-nonsense laser focus bring this character to life in an engaging way. The performances particularly by the women in this film play a massive part in maintaining the energy and intrigue. Another super-achieving character is Marla’s business partner and lover Fran, who operates behind the scenes and pulls a lot of the strings that make it possible for Marla’s scams to fall in place. González is a bona fide star; she is totally compelling to watch. She plays this character in a loving way that also gives insight into how Fran works and the self-awareness she has, sometimes seeing the red flags that Marla doesn’t. They’re interesting characters who can share their vulnerabilities with each other; González and Pike share great chemistry and no matter how despicable their actions, they maintain investment through the commitment of their portrayals.
Everyone caught in Marla’s spiderweb has a story. I Care A Lot briefly portrays the disbelief and horror of being on the other side of her con. Resonating the most is Dianne Wiest, the divine secret ingredient of this film. Her presence is sorely missed in the second half, which fully embraces the twisty crime thriller structure. In some ways Jennifer Peterson embodies the dream; as heard through Fran’s first impression of her, “[Jennifer is] rich, independent…that lady right there, she’s my hero.” Wiest’s gift of storytelling inhabits her character’s history that is seen and heard not through flashbacks, but on her face and in her voice, existing entirely in the moment. Albeit brief in screen time, her performance truly embodies peeling off the layer of a person and presenting a so-called “typical old lady” in a completely new light. She becomes the most unexpected and sadly the most underutilized character. There is a missed opportunity in not staying with her more; her first meeting with Marla and the sequence of being brought to the care facility are incredibly depressing to watch. She’s brilliant at the pathos and just as capable at channeling the lioness Marla speaks of. Their scenes together are among the best in the film. Wiest glides through with tricks up her sleeve and, in retrospect, feels like the secret key who ties the emotional experience together.
Marla cares a lot about her success. This is what she does all day, every day. Who or what will she manipulate next in order to get what she wants? I Care A Lot introduces and signs off with the reminder of not only the lines Marla crosses to succeed, but also the people whose lives were affected by her decisions. J Blakeson’s twisted spiderweb of a story shows the absurdity of how far people such as Marla will go, and how frustratingly easy it is for her to build up the trust of those trying to do good in order to manipulate those who are vulnerable. While there are some missed opportunities to delve deeper into the subject matter that resonates the most, I Care A Lot is a wild rollercoaster with a fabulous cast led by the great Rosamund Pike and a divine secret ingredient at the core.