Synopsis: A court-appointed legal guardian defrauds her older clients and traps them under her care. But her latest mark comes with some unexpected baggage.
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Nicolas Logan, Kevin McCormick, Michael Malvesti, Liz Eng, Alicia Witt
Director: J. Blakeson
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: A lot of good came out of 2014’s Gone Girl. For one thing, after the cool reception of the big screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it gave director David Fincher an opportunity to bounce back with another hotly anticipated film based on a number one bestselling novel. Then there was leading man Ben Affleck’s comeback story that was just kicking off after a Best Picture Oscar win for 2012’s Argo and the general feeling in Hollywood that he was robbed of a Best Director nomination. Though he was soon to feel the heat from the comic book nerdom in the unwinnable battle of playing Batman for several films in the ill-fated DC Extended Universe, he was an interesting choice for the role but ultimately a smart move on Fincher’s part.
The real reason we’ll continue to talk about Gone Girl long after people have stopped debating the merits of the book vs. the movie is Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-nominated performance as a missing wife that may not be as missing as we’re led to believe. Pike won critics and audiences over in how she brought this character that was so complex and unreliable on the page to life, adding in extra nuances the book wasn’t able to supply due to the limitations of its medium. The character is unforgettable in so many ways and some of that is the collaboration between Pike, her director, and her co-star but it’s mostly Pike allowing an at times unlikable character to speak up and out, eventually burrowing under our skin to strangely become someone to cheer on.
After all the hoopla, you’d have expected there to be more to the Pike peak and while the actress had a solid resume before the film and nomination, her films over the last half decade have been slightly on the lackluster side. Most have been supporting turns that haven’t allowed her the chance to shine like she could and when she does take center stage, like in 2020’s Radioactive, the films don’t quite rise up to meet her. It’s a thrill to report, then, that right off the bat in 2021 Pike is back with I Care a Lot, the supremely entertaining new Netflix movie that premiered back in September 2020 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received a nice round of notices. Even better, Pike’s character feels like a slight riff on her Gone Girl persona and while it doesn’t seek to repeat the same work she did there, you see similarities in the characters so much that you almost wonder if Pike wouldn’t consider Amy from Gone Girl and Marla from I Care a Lot kindred spirits.
Meet Marla Grayson, a court-appointed guardian for a number of elderly or at-risk adults that need her expertise. According to the law, she has access to their finances and authority over where they live, their medical care, their routines, and what they eat. Even if they have family that are living, as long as she can convince the court she is better suited to take on these adults as her ward, she’s in charge. It’s a wicked little con, this predatory guardianship masquerading as elder care, and no one is doing it better than Marla Grayson. Sadly a concept based in reality, predatory guardians search for seniors with a history of health issues and either get them to sign over their rights or have the courts make the final call. Once the guardianship is in place, it’s hard to get it dissolved without the person under the care making a direct statement they are well enough to care for themselves. Easier said than done considering how these elderly individuals are “cared for” with the types of treatment they are subjected to by their “guardians.” With her razor-sharp bob, perfect make-up, and always on trend clothes, Marla (Pike) is the very picture of having her act together. How could the court see her as anything but looking out for the best interest of her clients?
Working with her second in command and live-in lover Fran (Eiza González, Paradise Hills), Marla is always looking for that perfect mark, or ‘cherry’, someone with no immediate family or living relatives that could show up to get in her way or claim any inheritance monies at the time of death. One day, that fruitful horse comes in for Marla in the form of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest, Let Them All Talk), a woman in her late ‘60s living alone in a big, beautiful house and sitting on a pile of cash. Jennifer’s doctor is getting a kickback from Marla by tipping her off to patients that may be good targets for her type of service as is a local nursing home manager that can charge a lot of funds for his care services so all it takes is a stop in family court (without Jennifer present) and an emotional plea for Jennifer’s ‘safety’ and Marla has a new ward and what looks to be a big payday. Before Jennifer knows it, her house is gone and her possessions have been auctioned off with Marla using the money from the sale to pay her own salary. There’s just one rather large problem…this ward isn’t as alone in the world as Marla thinks.
Writer/director J. Blakeson wisely eschews the “based on true events” angle that could have been taken and opts instead for an original story that allows for a healthy helping of ice-cold bitterness traveling throughout a number of the characters. In some films, this could become a real drag and stagnate into sameness fairly quickly but Blakeson’s film has such an energy to it that watching people take bites at one another only propels it forward with more adrenaline. Marla is unapologetic in her mission to succeed and isn’t deterred by threats on a verbal or physical level. While we don’t get much in the way of her backstory save for a brief (and telling) reference to her mother, an early confrontation between her and the son of a ward gives the impression she made a decision a number of years back to face all challenges head on and suffer any consequences as a result with open arms.
As one of maybe ten people on the planet that has yet to watch Game of Thrones, I can’t say I’ve yet joined the Peter Dinkalge (Three Christs) fan club based on the films I’ve seen him in so far, yet his co-starring role in I Care a Lot is likely the most I’ve enjoyed him from start to finish. His first appearance is long after the tone of the film has been set by Pike and Blakeson, so he struggles with some adjustment at first and even if he arguably never fully gets that balance right, he makes a nice foil for Pike and a worthy sparring partner in several scenes near the end of the picture. I only wish he wasn’t always trying to be a ‘character’ instead of just letting his acting happen naturally…he consistently appears to be working harder than everyone else for no real reason and it winds up shining the wrong spotlight on him.
It’s Pike’s picture all the way no matter how you spin it and it’s a shame there likely isn’t room for her on the Oscar ballot this year because here’s another complicated female role that deserves recognition. Far from a decent human, insanely stubborn, and comically driven to succeed by stepping over anyone and anything without saying ‘excuse me’, Marla will still earn your admiration in spite of all her behavior. That’s says a lot not just about Blakeson’s screenplay but in how Pike has layered Marla to have more to her than we originally see. It’s not a softer side, per se, but it is someone that just wants to be taken seriously and to play by the rules…even if the rules may not ultimately be fair. Movies that walk an edge like this and make an anti-hero the star of the show can be a turn-off for people but I appreciated that Blakeson saw Marla’s character through to the uncompromising end…her hard shell exterior isn’t an act so don’t waste your time waiting for her to break.
Regrettably faltering right when it needs to fly the highest, I Care a Lot almost makes it to the finish line maintaining the high level of entertainment it kept up pace with for its run time…and that’s too bad because it gets so close. Take that as a minor quibble if you will but it nagged at me, especially seeing that Blakeson seemed to have everything so snappy and under control. All said, this is one of the best Netflix offerings in recent memory and makes for an all-around crackling watch. Don’t miss it.