I Care A Lot is a movie about two lesbian con artists who go up against the Russian mob. If I made that sound interesting or fun, I’m sorry to report, it is not. Tedious and dull the movie never rises to the heights of its admittedly cool premise and delightful cast. It leaves them on the screen to writhe about without direction or amusement.
The film, written and directed by J Blakeson has a wonderful idea for a story but doesn’t have the script to back it up. The dialogue is bland and lifeless. Thankfully a brilliant cast dutifully delivers the lines to the best of their ability. But the problem goes beyond forgettable dialogue.
Rosemund Pike is Marla Grayson, a wonderfully loathsome character in a movie chock full of despicable people. She is a professional legal guardian. Marla has a network of people who conspire to legally put elderly people into care homes while taking over their estate and bank accounts.
One day one of the doctors on Marla’s payroll, Dr. Amos (Alica Witt) calls her and says she has a “cherry”. A cherry is someone who is loaded but has no family of any kind, someone who is all alone and perfectly vulnerable to be eaten by the system. The mark in question is Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest).
But Marla soon discovers that Jennifer may not be as vulnerable as she thought. Though the diamonds she finds in Jennifer’s safety deposit box hint at a bigger fortune than what she was hoping for. Still, lost diamonds rarely stay lost, as someone is always looking for them.
Blakeson’s script is just plausible enough that I idly wondered if Marla’s scheme was, in fact, possible. The sheer amount of corruption and lack of humanity required for such a scheme seemed uniquely American. A fact that Blakeson himself seems to believe as well.
The aspect of I Care A Lot that works the best is the part where Blakeson seems exhausted by the American culture of wealth worship and even more so by our national creed of “Greed is good”. But it’s not a theme of the movie, merely something that is brought up from time to time.
There is no theme. The movie wants to be about the cruelty of American culture and has some nice moments where characters talk about the desire to be rich and how it’s the American way and all that but these moments are sporadic. There’s no motif visually or otherwise, that links these moments together aside from the exasperating plot mechanics.
Pike’s performance is so good and her character so dastardly and reprehensible I wish she was in a different movie where she could be better served. As it is she marshalls her talents and emerges relatively unscathed. But as vile and evil as she is, Marla is hampered by a bizarre code of ethics that is never hinted at or explained, until she implicitly states it in a scene late into the movie.
It turns out Jennifer is the mother of a Russian mobster in hiding, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). Roman is upset that his mother has been put into a home and appears to be trapped and held against her will. He’d also like to know where his diamonds are. So being a Russian mobster he handles the situation the only way he knows how, with the threat of violence.
This leads to some deaths and a scene in which Marla visits Jennifer at the home. She proclaims to Jennifer that she will never give her up. Marla is upset that the Russian mobsters didn’t beat her in the courtroom but instead killed her associates. To her, that qualifies as breaking the rules.
Except both sides seem to be operating without respect to rules. Marla’s offense to a step too far feels forced. Had Marla been one of those Hollywood criminals like from say The Sting where the criminals operate on a strict code of honor, this would make sense. But Marla doesn’t and neither do Russian mobsters, especially mobsters who are hiding out from other mobsters.
Blakeson’s script is plagued by his inability to understand how to tell a story with an antagonist as his protagonist. This is a story with no heroes but yet we are constantly asked to root for Marla but Blakeson never finds the tone that would allow us to do so. It doesn’t help that the characters never display a consistent amount of street smarts or book smarts.
There is an art to displaying a character’s intelligence both in literature and in film. A way of giving an audience a view of the playing field by showing how different characters think. Elmore Leonard would do this brilliantly by having character interactions give us a peek into the character’s thought process.
But Blakeson doesn’t have the flair for dialogue or character development to pull this off. I Care A Lot is bland and devoid of personality. Which makes a movie full of a-holes tedious and dull.
Roman sends a lawyer, Dean Erickson (Chris Messina) to intimidate Marla. He fails miserably. For a movie about cons and mobsters, Blakeson’s characters are sloppy and boneheaded. Dean’s failure should show us the differences between how the mobsters operate and how Marala operates. But the scene never finds the tone it needs to pull this off.
Dean fails to convince Marla to let Jennifer go. Neither bribery nor threats have worked. So he’s forced to go to court. He loses.
He loses because Dean doesn’t seem to understand how to ingratiate himself with the judge. Which, if he were a lawyer for a mobster, he should have some insight or charm. Dean doesn’t even appear to have done any kind of prep work for the case.
Messina’s wonderful white pinstripe suit aside, the courtroom scene, like every other scene, falls flat. There’s no tension because Blakeson telegraphs to us that Dean will lose. He’s going for comedy while showing us how capable Marla is.
But in so doing he’s made Dean into an unbelievable fool making Marla’s win all the more hollow. Had Dean been competent then there would have been a fight and we would have seen Marla at her best. Instead, we’re left with another wrongheaded scene bereft of direction or purpose.
The characters are incapable of expressing themselves with any flair. Granted, Marla does have a particularly brutal line. While having lunch with her business partner and lover Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), they discuss Dean’s visit to her office. Fran is worried but Marla is unfazed. “If you can’t get a woman to do what you want then call her a bitch or threaten to kill her.”
Gonzalez and Pike as a woman-loving-woman couple have a quiet intense energy that is never fully explored. I like them together but the film gives us tantalizingly few scenes with these two. Their relationship serves as one of the few bright spots of the film simply because we are left wondering how does an ex-cop end up in a relationship with someone like Marla?
As much fun as Dinklage is having as a Russian mobster I wish he had more moods other than morose or apoplectic. Blakeson’s script gives him precious little to work with. Though I did laugh at the scene where it appeared Roman was going for a gun only to pull out a cream-filled Long John.
For all the amorality sloshing about in I Care A Lot Blakeson never seems to relish in the bad deeds of his characters. Nor does he stand back, allowing the camera’s eye to act as an objective observer. Instead, he tries to do both and it grinds the movie to a halt.
He wants us to root for Marla despite her awfulness. But he never has the gumption to frame her in a way that would make us cheer her on despite her dubious moral character. I Care A Lot suffers from a failure of nerve.
Sadly, the visuals are as forgettable as the dialogue. Doug Emmett, who shot I Care A Lot has moments that hint at a far darker and stylized movie than what we ultimately get. Some scenes have an almost dream-like quality to them, rich with visual potency.
One scene has Marla escaping her car as it sinks to the bottom of the lake. The image of her swimming through a dark abyss looking for air, struggling to live is briefly haunting. But it’s a reminder of how unimaginative the rest of the movie is.
Towards the end, Blakeson finally strikes a balance that has been eluding him for the entire movie. But, predictably, he screws that up by giving a character a moral comeuppance despite the film showing zero moral compunction at any point earlier in the film. Agreeing or disagreeing with the decision is beside the point as the execution of the final scene feels mean and vindictive. It is as if the film starts playing by a different set of rules.
I Care A Lot is burdened by mediocrity to the point that it robs all the greatness that exists within. Its tone and mood are a misfire as Blakeson never dares to tear into these characters or unleash them and try to play with our sensibilities by making us root for the bad guys. The movie may care but it does a horrible job convincing us why we should.
The film is hobbled because it has no real theme; merely an idea. I Care A Lot is a movie about nothing. There are no motifs and no real meditation on what few notions it has in its head. Worse of all it’s just plain dull.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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