By Peg Aloi
The problem with I Care a Lot is that, despite its intimations of reality, there are tropes and story elements that come off as melodramatic for melodrama’s sake.
I Care a Lot, written and directed by J Blakeson.
Our largest age demographic in this country is currently over 65, and the afflictions of the elderly in nursing home care and healthcare facilities have only been magnified during our seemingly never-ending pandemic. This Netflix film by J Blakeson (who also directed the miniseries Gunpowder) opens with a fraught courtroom scene in which a man (Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair) angrily confronts the “legal guardian” of his aging mother. The court has barred him from visiting her in a care facility or managing her financial affairs. The court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), coolly dismisses the man’s rage and convinces the judge she’s the right person to continue overseeing his mother’s care. After the courtroom fiasco, Marla immediately gets a phone call about another potential client. She discusses the case with a doctor (Alicia Witt), who turns out to be embroiled in a legally and morally questionable enterprise designed to drain senior citizens of their life savings.
The scam is a smoothly running machine orchestrated by Marla, the doctor, the care facility’s director, and the family court judge who oversees hearings about granting guardianship. Once she’s named a legal guardian, Marla obtains a court order to remove the individual from their home and have them admitted to the care facility. She is given access to their real estate and other assets, which she quickly sells, using some of the profits to support the client’s care. The rest goes straight into her pocket. Marla also has the power — in consultation with the doctor she’s in cahoots with — to “prescribe” medications that leave her clients confused or fatigued. She can also prevent family members from gaining access. Her latest victim is Jennifer, played by none other than the fabulous Dianne Wiest: a feisty seventy-something woman in perfect health. She has no apparent next of kin, which makes her a perfect target for Marla’s scam. She’s put in a nursing home, her phone is taken away, and she’s medicated into a state of dullness. Her helplessness is palpable and heartbreaking.
It’s all rather horrifying, right? I Care a Lot is part glossy thriller and part black comedy. At the film’s center is an intriguing premise that will surely make viewers of all ages uncomfortable, particularly those on the far side of 60 — or those taking care of aged parents. Add to that inevitable discomfort a frightening reality: the disastrous state of our healthcare system in terms of affordability and coverage, compounded by an epidemic of financial scams targeting the elderly. The heath “care” here feels eerily plausible.
The problem with I Care a Lot is that, despite its intimations of reality, there are tropes and story elements that come off as melodramatic for melodrama’s sake, and this contrivance undercuts the story’s dramatic impact. For example, we learn early on that Marla has a girlfriend, which immediately sets up an “evil lesbian” cliché. Not to mention that the girlfriend Fran (the wonderful Eiza González) is reduced to being a pawn in the machinations. Then there’s Peter Dinklage, a world class actor who gives an understated, precise portrayal as Jennifer’s son. Marla didn’t know about his existence — he’s a low key criminal of some kind. The guy’s cold and ruthless, a worthy foil to Marla’s icy cruelty, so it’s entertaining to see them square off. But who is he? We’re just asked to accept him as a charismatic bad guy who enters the picture. There are suggestions he’s part of a larger criminal network, and that his mother might be involved too, but the details are a bit fuzzy, and conveniently arbitrary. There’s no there there — with any of these characters. I’d also have enjoyed seeing more confrontation between Marla and Jennifer, but the wonderful Wiest is whisked away from the central plot way too early.
Count me as someone happy to see Rosamund Pike cast in a juicy role. She gives a knockout performance as a cool-headed, hard-hearted entrepreneur at the center of a brilliant bunco scheme. But I wanted more substance from this film; it settles for unlikely coincidences and unexplained motivations. Of course, some people are just evil. But Marla’s throwaway remark that her own mother was “sociopathic” left me curious: how did Marla become a person who lies and manipulates in order to rake in money? And how does she live? We barely see any of the upscale ‘lifestyle’ she works so hard (and underhandedly) to support. Learning something about what makes Marla tick would have made the woman’s greed and clever plotting more affecting. More of that kind of contextual spice might have made this tight little thriller a gourmet meal, rather than the ultimately unsatisfying Meals on Wheels tray it turns out to be.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.