Generally speaking, movies give us someone(s) to root for. Whether that’s two people getting together or folks saving the world or cops catching a killer or any number of other scenarios, when we sit down to watch a movie we are offered a/several character/s we want to see succeed. We are also often given folks we want to see fail. Even this last, however, is often accompanied by a person on the other side for whom we can cheer. What happens when a film provides absolutely no one we want to see succeed? At least in the case of J Blakeson’s “I Care a Lot,” the answer is: something wonderful.
This dark comedy stars Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a woman who cares for the elderly when they cannot care for themselves. She takes charge of their finances, oversees their healthcare, and does absolutely everything else in her power to make sure that these senior citizens can live out their days in happiness and comfort.
Well, that’s her job description anyway. The truth is that she fleeces them. She, along with her business partner/girlfriend, Fran (Eiza González, who is underused throughout), and a network of contacts, find elderly people whose life earnings she can slowly pull away from them for years on end until they are left with nothing. She is a person due a comeuppance.
Enter Dianne Wiest’s Jennifer Peterson, a rich older woman who, seemingly, has no family whatsoever. Grayson sinks her hooks into Peterson only to find people suddenly, and forcefully, coming after her.
This is the game of cat and cat that is “I Care a Lot.”
On the other side of things, Grayson soon learns, is a gangster played by Peter Dinklage. This man smuggles diamonds and people and goodness knows what else. He has a band of armed thugs working for him as well as one smarmy lawyer (Chris Messina), and wants Peterson out of the home Grayson has put her in.
Blakeson offers up a great beginning of a movie and can even keep things going well into the middle portion. Grayson uses her contacts to squeeze Peterson more and more tightly in order to get information as her adversary uses more traditional sorts of violent threats. The back and forth is better than good, it is great. It manages to perfectly thread the needle of being both horribly evil and terribly funny. It truly cannot be overstated how excellent a setup exists here.
Eventually, however, the fun ekes out as Grayson turns more towards the gangster’s methods. The shift, although perhaps a logical one, tilts the movie far away from what Grayson does best and the wondrousness with which Pike has imbued her. The Grayson of the early portion of the film uses the system to leverage others and does it with such crass calculation that it becomes a thing of beauty. She may be effective when resorting to violence, but it eliminates a good portion of what works about the movie.
Similarly, “I Care a Lot” also abandons one of the film’s true highlights along the way: Wiest’s Peterson. Some of the best moments in the film are watching a doped up Peterson struggling through the foggy haze of the medicine the senior care facility has given her in order to issue vague warnings and threats to Grayson. These moments are the perfect distillation of deliciously evil comedy that we’ve gotten to that point. But, as the plot shunts Peterson to the side, so too does it lose its sense of humor.
Messina is, like Wiest, fantastic. And, like Wiest, disappears when the film could desperately use him. Both characters speak to the dark sort of humor that “I Care a Lot” employs so beautifully before seeming to forget that it exists.
Dinklage, who has more than once proven his ability to offer up deep and compelling characters, gives us a great many-faceted gangster here. There is something in the way he chooses a macaron or approaches an éclair or looks at the Polaroids of people he seems to be forcing into the slave trade that speak to true planning and consideration (even if what he’s considering is horrible). Because the gangster never has to abandon his tactics, this remains true throughout the film and it is all the better for it.
In its best moments, when Grayson and the gangster are still feeling each other out, the sky’s the limit for where the movie might go. As it progresses and the whole thing narrows down, it becomes more staid but still manages to hang on to some of what makes it work, even if it isn’t the supporting cast. This is a movie which is never dull and manages to find a perfect ending, but perhaps is a victim of its own early success. Pike is sensational as the perfectly put together Grayson (the costumes are excellent), finding the exact right pitch for the character. It is the character who lets her down as she falls apart, not vice versa.
Out on Netflix today, “I Care a Lot” offers up a brilliant take on various forms of villainy. And, it very nearly sustains itself for its full running time. However, like so many movie baddies, it can’t quite sustain itself as long as it must. It is so very good and quite nearly great.
Certainly, it proves that you don’t need a good guy to make a good movie.
photo credit: Netflix