You used to see plenty of films like I Care a Lot in 1990s. In the slipstream of Quentin Tarantino’s first burst of success there was a glut of movies with a “who’s zooming who” plot playing out in an “only in the movies” universe of smart talk, skull-cracking violence, hot women, cool men, gunplay and cars. Joe Carnahan – one of the best of the bunch of writer/directors working the territory – summed it up well in the title of his 1998 debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. There was a real sense of writers and directors having a lot of fun. Sometimes more than the audience.
I Care a Lot’s writer/director J Blakeson is clearly enjoying himself with a bait and switch plot that seems at first knockings to be a satire centred on Marla Grayson, a money-grabbing lawyer (Rosamund Pike) working a legal guardian scam – possibly an analogue for a wider critique of the corrupt financial system? Then, as Grayson strongarms her latest victim – sparky, rich retiree Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) – into a care home against her will and proceeds to strip her assets, Blakeson shift us towards what looks like a wrongful-imprisonment thriller, with Peterson/Wiest the focus.
And then he switches again. There’s more to this hale and hearty senior boomer than weekly aqua-aerobics classes, it seems. To the rescue, enter Peter Dinklage as a cross between a Bond villain and a white knight, extravagantly over-enunciating as all the best bad guys do.
At this point any workaday scam artist keen to clean up quick and then move on to the next mark would probably back off, but we’ve left the real world and are now breathing pure genre, though Blakeson’s screenplay gives Grayson a few speeches attempting to pull her character back down to earth. Instead of backing off, the lawyer’s naked pride impels her onward, the rest of the movie being essentially a godalmighty tussle between Grayson and Dinklage’s Roman Lunyov to see who’s top dog, with Jennifer as their trophy.
Blakeson pulled off similar plot gymnastics with his feature debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, with two reveals that made a kidnap thriller into something tasty enough to have spawned two foreign-language remakes (no doubt helped by the fact that the film can be made for nothing, requiring only three actors and a single set).
In the sort of devious-female role familiar from Gone Girl, Pike is particularly well cast as the avaricious take-no-prisoners savagely, bobbed lawyer, and in 1990s style she’s a lipstick lesbian to boot, with her inamorata (and useful sounding board) Fran played by Eliza Gonzaléz, who has little to do except stand around and look hot (mission accomplished).
The film’s best scenes are all two handers – Pike trading threats with Chris Messina as the stubbly sexist and over-dressed lawyer sent in by Dinklage’s Lunyov to spring Peterson; Pike against Wiest, the old dear hissing malevolently; Pike against Dinklage, badassery indexes going off the scale.
So, an aggressive black-comedy thriller farce of the old school, brilliantly written and played and moving fast because it knows that there’s stiff competition in the archive, and because contemplative musing isn’t what this sort of film is offering.
More of Wiest would have been a real plus, especially since this is a film all about women having agency – which you couldn’t often say about 1990s examples of the genre – but she never overplays her hand as the charming senior with a spitfire alter ego. Same goes for Dinklage, who after years of Game of Thrones knavery could phone in these big characters full of flowery eloquence but doesn’t.
And if it takes its foot off the pedal a touch as it enters its last 20 minutes or so, that’s OK too, the entertainment has been had. This film is a lot of fun.
© Steve Morrissey 2021