Written and direcred by J Blakeson
I Care a Lot has its share of problems, and so it's maybe not even the worst of them, but certainly the most fundamental is that it never figures out what movie it is—what story it's telling, how it's telling it, even who its protagonist is, let alone why. It cycles through at least three different modes—four, really, if you include the title, which taken with the subject matter suggests a bleak comedy, though I Care a Lot is rarely funny and when it is it's only because of some terrifically miscalibrated hair and wardrobe decisions—and it's not good at any of them, though the closest it gets is its first, when it's a cold-blooded satire of girlboss capitalism. It manages to be better at this mainly through casting and, in fairness, well-calibrated hair and wardrobe decisions, albeit ones so unimaginative and on-the-nose that its central figure feels like a parody of herself even within her movie's universe.
That central figure sporting the six-inch heels and blunt bob that looks like a razor gets taken to it daily is Marla Grayson—the casting is Rosamund Pike, in case there was going to be any ambiguity—who has built a small business for herself as a court-appointed guardian for senior citizens undergoing terminal decline but who don't have friends or family who can properly see to their needs. Despite her protestations, Marla does this not out of a sense of calling, but as pure grift, part of a web of corruption throughout the elder care field that incentivizes doctors to declare their patients mentally incompetent so that nursing home administrators can effectively imprison them in their facilities, while Marla and her partner/girlfriend Fran (Eiza González) empty their estates to pay for it and line their own pockets in the process. The scam is lucrative but small-time, and Marla keeps a lookout for "cherries," like the one she finds in Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), an old woman of significant means yet, it seems, without a single living relative to object if Marla were to have her put away while bleeding her dry. She obviously leaps at the opportunity, but it happens that "Jennifer Peterson" is much more than she seems, for whoever "Jennifer Peterson" was, this woman is in fact mother to Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), head of a Russian crime syndicate, and he reasonably requests that Marla perhaps rethink her plan of falsely imprisoning a mob boss's mom.
That's a pretty streamlined summary, and it's also pretty much it; the only wrinkle, such as it is, is that Marla, recognizing that (theoretically) she has overwhelming leverage over Roman and "Jennifer," isn't about to give her up for less than the fortune she believes she's entitled to, which is this screenplay's attempt at justifying the crime thriller that it half-heartedly weaves its way into. I say "theoretically" because there's never actually any good reason that Roman doesn't murder her as soon as she refuses his (fairly substantial) initial bribe, inasmuch as her leverage doesn't exist: a dead court-appointed guardian would simply be replaced, probably by a more ethical one, and undoubtedly by one not this likely to be an affectless sociopath, willing to engage in a high-stakes game of chicken with a stone-cold murderer who just killed their predecessor.
Anyway, that's the big plot hole that swallows up most of the middle of I Care a Lot, and it's not necessarily something worth getting too mad about, since the movie has to undergird its battle of wills between two monsters in some way, and for whatever reason this is the scenario we got—I submit that this reason was that writer-director J Blakeson spent an afternoon spitballing movie ideas, and this is the one he thought sounded the most novel. So it has one sucking wound in the center of the script and a whole lot of rough patches around the sides, too. It's in the structure that it becomes a flat-out disaster, though: while it's fair to pay Blakeson the compliment of attempting—somewhat ambitiously, even—to ribbon a rueful satire with genre thrills in order to make the former more palatable, the transition from one phase of the movie to the other is unbelievably clunky, and perspective gets addled completely in the process, with Blakeson remaining agnostic as to what his movie's actually saying about anything. The early part belongs, naturally, to Marla, and in truth I don't think anybody else really matters to the film, though her part really only works in contrast to the complete dysfunction of the subsequent parts, with Pike regaling us with badly-written voiceover about lionesses or some such shit, and a whirlwind depiction of her scam. It points in the direction of, obviously, Gone Girl, but more aptly Scorsese crime movies and Scorsese crime movie knock-offs (not least recent distaff Scorsese crime movie knock-off, Hustlers), albeit without much understanding of why any of them worked even as well as they do: part of it is simply reveling in the bad behavior of outlaws, sure, but in the former, it's a meticulously-worked out vengeance that's a beautiful object in and of itself; in the latter, these were, you know, true stories, which doesn't make them good or important movies by default, but does at least mean they're obliged to be about humans and human society, with scripts that reflect some manner of real world concern.
I Care a Lot tries to occupy some nebulous space instead, where it sort of makes a half-assed effort to pretend to be about a real and concrete issue, without knowing anything about it and certainly with no intention of learning, rendering itself cartoonish enough to be extremely stupid, and not cartoonish enough to get to any deeper truths, starting with Pike's performance, which dusts off Amy Dunne to diminished returns, and with a much flatter, vastly less charismatic character on the page to do it with. Pike's a good enough actor to make this psychologically credible (at least on her movie's terms), but Marla Grayson is still more of a vampire than a person, which gives us the unsatisfying spectacle of a conwoman nobody would ever trust, and it's ultimately a dead end—neither Pike nor Blakeson ever really quite come to terms with Marla, and it makes a muddle out of any ideology or even emotional coherence I Care a Lot was pursuing. It shifts from scene-to-scene whether Marla is an evil force of nature, or just a product of a sick society, or perhaps even someone to be admired as an antiheroic figure making her way through a capitalist hellscape whilst facing down HR-training-video-level sexism (a lawyer, and this is a movie set roughly in the late 2010s, refers contemptuously to a "she-doctor" like a sitcom character from 1962). Likewise, Blakeson's attempts to substitute lesbian makeout scenes for Marla's missing soul are a complete waste of time outside of the vague extrinsic notion that it's nice that a movie can have lesbians without it being "about lesbianism," though there is nothing about Marla having any romantic partner that benefits this movie besides providing a body to put in danger. Inevitably, because of where Marla's been positioned, when Fran is put in danger, it's not very believable that Marla cares at all, let alone "a lot."
Meanwhile, any tantalizing sensation that a mysterious doom is encircling Marla offscreen gets abandoned when Blakeson opts to depart from her perspective entirely: Roman is suddenly dropped into the movie from practically nowhere, showcasing the least-interesting performance I have ever seen out of the usually highly-reliable Dinklage, though he's been handed such an egregiously featureless role—he's obliged to spend almost his entire screentime shrieking at a dreary secondary cast of underlings and giving them dire tasks that they're strangely incapable of carrying out—that I suppose that going on autopilot (and hoping his flat-ironed bangs are enough to make Roman a memorable villain) is all that Dinklage could have possibly done with the part anyway. Wiest's Jennifer is actually more fun when she's still a going concern, but there's equally little meat on this character's bones, and while she gets scenes in the care facility that could be harrowing (this is the third mode the film toys with adopting), when Blakeson runs out of ideas for pointless tangents to give her, he effectively cuts her out of the movie entirely. One of the subtler problems with I Care a Lot, then, is that it's so dreadfully inefficient. The approach Blakeson takes is just all wrong: to the extent thrillers run on momentum (while even cartoonish satires of evil, to some extent, run on how they're able to shock you with their characters' toxicity), I Care a Lot never had any business running almost two full hours, certainly not with a screenplay this threadbare, and barreling through the same stuff in an abrasive 90 minutes might have been worthwhile.
Or, maybe not: once we do get to the thriller part—which, you'd figure, is the part Blakeson would invest the most effort in—it's a very wan thriller indeed, all boilerplate, and to the extent one could be convinced to admire Marla's grit and moxie (or find it entertaining, or whatever), it would've helped if she didn't succeed solely because her enemies are inept goofballs. It might have also helped if the movie didn't look godawful: the first phase almost benefits from its antiseptic bright lighting and colors rendered in digital sharpness, because that aesthetic fits Marla and her milieu. Unfortunately, Blakeson and cinematographer Doug Emmett's attempts to use shallow focus to distinguish it from an insurance commercial backfire fairly horribly, and it does start grating on the eyes fairly rapidly. (And then there's the slap-in-the-face cheapness of a tete-a-tete between Marla and Roman that takes place against a greenscreen—or is so damn digital it looks greenscreened—because, it seems, Blakeson could not acquire a construction site to shoot the scene properly, something movies made for $40,000 in the 80s could still accomplish.) The only thing that works very well throughout is Marc Canham's electronic score, and to the extent this satire is compelling or the thriller thrilling, it's thanks mainly to the synthetic throb of the music, though to some extent even this is secondhand. Everything about I Care a Lot is secondhand, of course: the story, the characters, the editing, everything but the premise, and even the premise is arguably only an excuse. It's a microscopically minor thing, but I think it's a wonderful symbol of the movie's derivative thoughtlessness: in Jennifer's safety deposit box, Marla finds a bag of diamonds. Those diamonds have been hidden inside a hollowed-out book, and the only reason I can imagine that Jennifer would put a hollowed-out book inside a safety deposit box is that Blakeson saw people hiding contraband in hollowed-out books in other movies, and decided that this was cool.