Some films are results of a burning passion to tell a great story. Some come from a bleeding soul trying to describe extremely complex emotions using the language of moving images. Some come from more simple desires to offer entertainment to their audiences (and there’s nothing wrong with that). And then, there are some that try to guess what their audiences want to see in order to assert themselves in the popular culture. They are fakes, cinematic sociopaths smiling when it’s appropriate to smile and perfecting the art of saying the right thing at the right time without having a shred of original thought of their own. I Care a Lot is one such specimen.
I find this incidentally ironic because the film itself – at least in part – follows the exploits of a calculated sociopath, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) who together with seemingly an endless sea of co-conspirators (assistants, doctors, nurses and care home managers) makes a living by preying on old and vulnerable. She would identify suitable victims, utilize a combination of medical malpractice and legal shenanigans to send them off to care homes, seize their assets and sell them off for tangible profit. And to top it all off, she’d have enough gall to display her sinister achievements on some kind of a wall of fame in her office, just to constantly remind herself of just how many lives she is ruining at every single moment. However, things take a drastic turn when Marla puts a seemingly defenceless single old lady Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) in her crosshairs. She doesn’t know she’s about to kick the hornets’ nest and draw the ire of a dangerous criminal (Peter Dinklage) with whom Jennifer has a mysterious relationship.
Now, on paper the central intrigue presents itself as somewhat compelling. After all, who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned story about people who accidentally find themselves in over their heads and on the run from ruthless gangsters who chop off people’s fingers as a matter of tradition? What’s not to like? Exactly, this is where a good part of the problem lies because in contrast to many films that followed a similar template (Snatch and Shallow Grave would be good examples that immediately come to mind, and for a good reason that I will touch on shortly), I Care a Lot does not invest a single penny in developing its protagonists as likeable enough for the viewer to get behind. In fact, it is frankly impossible to cheer for Marla as a character. She is a ruthless sociopath who will stop at nothing in order to achieve her goals.
On the other hand, it is impossible to disregard decades-worth of stories with antiheroes (and antiheroines) at their centre that did not have the same issues. Somehow, I don’t think anyone ever criticized Taxi Driver because Travis Bickle was unlikeable. Granted, some viewers might even have seen him as an outright hero because of the way he redeemed himself by saving Jodie Foster’s character in the end. At the very least he was pitiable. Equally, Lisbet Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also an antiheroine and nobody cares because her motives and her past explain her actions.
What about Patrick Bateman, you might ask? He’s not even an antihero, but a straight-up villain and that doesn’t degrade the quality of American Psycho as a story. True. Moreover, he is not even a character but a symbol or a narrative tool used to communicate a set of ideas – he is a vehicle for social commentary, which is also where Marla Grayson would fit the closest. However, the filmmaker (J Blakeson) either didn’t quite understand what kind of character Marla was when he was creating her or he purposefully designed a host of contrivances into her character. That’s because she is an amalgamation of Patrick Bateman (as a vehicle for commentary on rabid capitalism) and a wrong-man archetype built as a collage of clichés borrowed from all over the popular culture, all hidden behind the visage of Rosamund Pike who was most likely specifically cast because of her stellar work in David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl. In short, her character is a bit of a mess, a Frankenstein’s monster built to appeal and not to function independently as a compelling person. None of her traits seem fitting, earned or coherent. She was built this way for the film to score brownie point with viewers.
As a result, the whole film is a messy landfill of ideas taken from all over and pressed together to form a semi-cohesive narrative. While I would lie if I claimed that I didn’t have fun with some of its elements, I can’t hide the fact that I Care a Lot lacks personality of its own and seems carefully designed to tick a long laundry list of boxes to increase its appeal to very specific audience demographics, like politically switched-on critics and denizens of Film Twitter. And judging by the critical reception (combined with the thus far disappointing reception from general audiences), the recipe seems to have worked and maybe additionally helped to stoke even more divisions between critics and regular folks.
Even though I would classify myself as more of a critic than an average Joe, I Care a Lot didn’t do much for me. In fact, as I was watching it, I was acutely aware of the ruse being perpetrated by the filmmakers which resulted in the film as a whole coming across as fake. While I did respond to its occasional visual gaggery and I definitely appreciated the story’s kinetic pace, I could not escape feeling as though none of what I was witnessing was genuine or honest. It felt to me as though every single element of the film was carefully calculated to evoke a positive response from a different subsection of general viewership. It’s hard to overlook the fact the story is for the most part archetypal and its treatment is definitely inspired by the work of Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trance) or Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla). It is equally impossible not to notice several visual touches evoking the spirit of David Fincher’s The Social Network and the aforementioned Gone Girl (which includes the casting of Rosamund Pike I have touched on earlier). Even the seemingly innocent casting of Peter Dinklage as the prime antagonist of the story carries a whiff of an ulterior motive because he is meant to bring both his likeable quirkiness and fan clout from Game of Thrones to the table and amplify the film’s chances to hit it big with as wide an array of viewers as possible.
As a result, I Care a Lot doesn’t gel as a compelling thriller with a social commentary embedded in its backbone. Instead, it comes across as a film designed by a Netflix algorithm based on a mathematically dubious assertion that merging an increasing number of ideas within a single narrative somehow increases the Venn overlap of audiences likely to respond positively to the film. The film is cynical and soulless and barely held together by the vestiges of its inspiration drawn from other, much better, films attempting to do similar things. It looks the part, it says the right things at the right time, but there is something eerie about the way it carries itself. And upon closer inspection it becomes abundantly clear that I Care a Lot is neither cutting enough to thrive as a politically-charged social commentary about third-wave feminism and commodification of healthcare, nor is it fun enough to sustain itself as a piece of harmless entertainment. It is a glorified deep-fake video filled with surface-level empty truisms, a personality-less attempt to cosy up to the film’s calculated target audience.