SAN ANTONIO — An occasionally cunning, candy cane-sleek thriller that is far more interesting for where it arrives than how it arrives there, “I Care a Lot” is the kind of movie you come away from unable to reflect on the first 110 minutes because the last five are so ferocious in vying for the spotlight that we feel compelled to at least humor it. Writer-director J Blakeson, I suppose, might consider it a job well done that I’ve already mentioned it in the opening sentences of this review. It’s an audacious finale that somewhat puts the rest of the film in perspective, but in its cruel double-punch line of a coda it also suggests Blakeson was stretching out the wrong parts of the story while constricting the right ones.
“I Care a Lot” depicts a supervillain origin story of sorts, yet by the time we meet Rosamund Pike’s trickster protagonist Marla Grayson, she’s already got her scamming down to a science. Armed with a steel-plated facade of altruism, an underlying grit that would make Gordon Gekko proud and a fake doctor’s note, we watch as Marla volunteers to take an ostensibly sickened senior citizen under her wing, satisfying a family court judge who’s completely unaware that Marla has orchestrated the whole thing—as she’s clearly done dozens, if not hundreds of times before.
At the same time, her team is already at said senior citizen’s home, methodically stripping its possessions that will be put up for auction and looking forward to when some of that money will flow right back into their pockets as henchmen of Marla’s legal guardianship scheme. If they finish quickly, they’ll have time for lunch before picking the next wealthy (and probably healthy, though that can be changed in a heartbeat) elderly neighbor to victimize. Their photo will be tacked up on the walls of Marla’s office—a trophy case as much as a battle plan. All’s running well in Gaming the System Town.
Blakeson, whose previous effort was the 2016 Chloë Grace Moretz alien invasion thriller “The 5th Wave,” succeeds at impressing us with the schematics of Marla’s fine-tuned operation as it unfolds to the beats of Marc Canham’s giddy electronic score. But it’s key that we revile her for it just as much; after all, Marla’s actions amount to kidnapping, though they’re carried out with such ease that we feel as frustrated by her unwitting enablers as we are convinced by her confidence. There may be measures in the real world to close the loopholes Marla is constantly exploiting, but the movie is well-written enough early on that I bought into the practicality of her slippery maneuvers. It’s always vividly entertaining to observe a well-constructed plan in motion at the movies, though here it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that that first-act montage would be even more thrilling were we discovering Marla’s ambitions in real-time; instead, an overwrought voiceover tips us off early to her capitalistically carnivorous appetite: “There are only two kinds of people: predators and prey. And I am a lioness.”
“I Care a Lot” is by and large an examination of white-collar greed filtered through a savagely corrupt lens of the American Dream, and the film – which finds Blakeson reaching for his inner Soderbergh, and not entirely succeeding – is at its best when those themes are weaved with subtlety and clarity through Marla’s exploits. Things become more restrictive once the writer-director’s ideas are given explicit voice by Chris Messina’s slippery and sexist lawyer, Dean, who shows up in Marla’s office after she ends up picking on the wrong senior citizen. That would be Dianne Wiest’s Jennifer Peterson, whose entrance into the narrative briefly suggests an impending chess match between herself and Marla—a karmic duel in which the prey will finally bare its teeth to the predator.
As hilarious as Wiest is in her few scenes, “I Care a Lot” instead goes down a more cartoonish rabbit hole—one that includes Peter Dinklage devouring an eclair with unbridled menace and a senior care-set shootout involving pastel scarf-wearing Russian gangsters. There’s some good biting fun to be had in these scenes, but “I Care a Lot” loses its way by shedding its skin several times over; once Marla’s toothy smiles have permanently given way to menacing smirks and the obvious comparisons to “Gone Girl’s” Amy Dunne (also played by Pike) fully come to bear, Blakeson’s movie uneasily becomes more of a genre hodge-podge than the sharp, tactful film we’re introduced to early on.
I’ll give Blakeson this: It’s worth reading into that messy malleability of his movie insofar as it mirrors the transformation of his protagonist. Though we foresee how terrible Dinklage’s Roman Lunyov will make things for Marla long before she does, it’s her (quite literal) plunge into the most dire of straits that yields someone whose cold-bloodedness is now even icier, her actions even more tenacious; Pike hasn’t lost the ability to plant her flag in that volatile area between calculation and explosiveness.
Calculated explosiveness is perhaps an apt descriptor for that finale that I can’t get out of my head, come to think of it—a narrative tornado of an ending designed to make jaws drop, although for reasons I have a hard time fully appreciating. Because what “I Care a Lot” comes to represent as the rug is pulled out from under us in the final moments is a story that I felt smirking at having tripped me up while also smugly insisting that, well, I should’ve noticed its sly advance all along. In actuality, it isn’t a finale worthy of its characters. It’s misdirection in favor of a missed opportunity.
"I Care a Lot" is rated R for language throughout and some violence. It's streaming on Netflix Friday.
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza, Gonzalez, Dianne Wiest
Directed by J Blakeson
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