Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a terrible person. The scam that she runs isn’t illegal, exactly, but it’s immoral and unethical and just plain mean. Marla targets vulnerable senior citizens who have little to no family connections and possess substantial financial assets, and she colludes with a doctor to get a court to declare those seniors unfit to care for themselves. Presenting herself as a concerned advocate for the elderly, she gets the court to appoint her as a legal guardian, and then she forces her wards into care homes, sells all of their assets, and pockets the profits.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call Marla the hero of writer-director J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot, but she is the protagonist, and Blakeson portrays her as a badass force to be reckoned with, a strong woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to powerful men and who’s built a business empire via her own hard work and ingenuity. So when Marla comes up against an actual criminal organization, the movie seems to be on her side, even though she’s thoroughly reprehensible and deserves every awful thing her enemies want to do to her. It’s a difficult tonal balance to achieve, and Blakeson can’t quite cut it, despite a committed performance from Pike and some sharp, witty dialogue.
Marla’s latest target is Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a seemingly unassuming retired business executive with a huge nest egg and no living relatives. But Jennifer is not who she appears to be, and messing with Jennifer brings Marla to the attention of some dangerous former members of the Russian mafia, led by Jennifer’s son, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). Instead of just walking away from this volatile situation to return to her lucrative practice of making easy money from clueless old people, Marla doubles down, putting herself and her girlfriend/assistant Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) in harm’s way again and again, just because she’s stubborn and refuses to concede.
It’s tough to sympathize with anything that Marla does, and she’s not the kind of movie scammer whose charisma and confidence excuses her bad behavior. Marla is abrasive and unpleasant, and Roman, an actual drug lord who has no qualms about killing people, somehow comes off as more likable and level-headed in comparison. Blakeson seems to be aiming for the kind of dark comedy that revels in awful people being awful to each other, in which nobody is worth rooting for and their shameless amorality is what makes them interesting. But I Care a Lot isn’t really a comedy, and by making Marla someone who preys on the defenseless, the movie sets her up as an irredeemable villain.
For the first 40 minutes or so, Marla doesn’t even face any real opposition, and the movie briefly comes to life when Chris Messina shows up as Roman’s slick, ruthless lawyer, sparring with Marla in her office and in court. Wiest also gets in a few juicy scenes when the seemingly placid Jennifer reveals her true colors to Marla, but both Messina and Wiest disappear for the second half of the movie, which involves the increasingly outlandish battle between Marla and Roman. It’s the type of thing that the Coen brothers could pull off, but Blakeson doesn’t have their cleverness as a writer or their proficiency as a director.
Parts of I Care a Lot are stylish and slick, and Pike nails this self-assured sociopathic character, something she perfected in Gone Girl. But even Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne was partially a victim of circumstance, enacting an elaborate revenge plot for discernible (if twisted) reasons. Other than a passing reference to her mother, I Care a Lot gives no information on Marla’s background and very little sense of her as a person. She’s a walking smirk, and the movie just smirks along with her.