It can be rare to find a movie where you don’t want the main character to win. Sure, there are films where the protagonists do a litany of awful things from heading mafias to flat-out murder, yet often times there is some small inkling of sympathy nestled into their storyline that makes you root for them in one way or another. Yet Netflix’s 2020 release “I Care a Lot” manages to make it very easy to hope its lead character, Marla Grayson, fails and fails hard, even if that is not the film’s intention.
Marla Grayson is not your average criminal, but instead she is a con artist with a specialty: manipulating her way into getting legal guardianship over the elderly only to drain their assets and sell off all their possessions as they spend the rest of their lives in a nursing home. Only after a seemingly easy mark gone wrong, she gets much more than she bargained for.
Perhaps it is so easy to dislike this character because we have become desensitized to murder in media, or perhaps it’s because unethical guardianships and conservatorships have made their way into the news lately. Any way you slice it, it becomes easy to love hating the character within the first ten minutes of the film. She does not show any remorse or acknowledgement that what she’s doing is wrong. Instead she attempts to justify her behavior by painting herself as a strong woman doing what she has to do, and her detractors as people who don’t like empowered women. While the character’s logic is aggravating, it is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film: the deconstruction of the “girl boss.”
The label girl boss carries complicated baggage with it, far too extensive to dive into right now, but “I Care a Lot” manages to show girl boss-dom in its absolute worst iteration: using power and privilege to take advantage of others for personal gain, but regarding it positively because a woman is in the power-position instead of a man. Marla may claim she’s a lioness because she takes what she wants even if it means taking other people down, but in actuality this results in her character becoming more like a rat or a vulture- an opportunistic feeder who preys on an easily corruptible system. For the first half of “I Care a Lot”, it seems abundantly clear that Marla is a tremendous hypocrite who exploits not only the elderly, but feminism to justify her horrible actions, yet by the second half the message becomes more muddled.
Around the halfway point the film departs from a disturbing-yet-wholly intriguing thriller rooted in reality and veers into action-movie territory. While the latter half of the movie does feel like an exciting cat-and-mouse chase as Marla fights for her life, it is here that “I Care a Lot” distances itself too much from its premise, and by extension the consequences of Marla’s actions. Though the film never fully redeems Marla even during her more gentler moments with her girlfriend and co-conspirator Fran, the manner in which the film simply drops the elder scamming plotline comes across as an attempt to make the protagonist seem sympathetic by brushing her victims under the rug when it is convenient for the story. As a result while “I Care a Lot” does not seem to praise its antihero, it feels somewhat inconsistent in its focus where it becomes difficult to discern what the film’s message is.
In a way it is a shame that the story only focuses partially on Marla’s victims. While evading death and cooking up schemes can be fun to watch, the real thrills and tension of the film frankly come when the focus is on Marla’s latest victim, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a seemingly innocent old woman without anyone to vouch for her. The dread that accompanies her forced admittance into the senior care facility is palpable, particularly given the knowledge that something as horrendous as that could- and has – been done in real life. Wiest’s performance itself and her acting range is a highlight of the film as well, leaving the dropping of her character in the second half of the film a travesty.
All in all “I Care a Lot” was an entertaining film from start to finish despite its flaws. If it had kept to its main premise more grounded and dove more deeply into the rarely-discussed marginalization of the elderly then it may have hit harder. Yet, the end product doesn’t fail to deliver suspense and an entertaining two hours of your time.
Photo courtesy of Netflix.