The recently released dark comedy, ‘I Care A Lot’ probes and unsettles in more than one way. At its core sits the uncomfortable paradox which is at the centre of any text giving it the necessary tension it requires – the discrepancy between what is and what we think, ‘is’.
‘I Care A Lot’ can be seen as a sharp critical depiction of the archetypal girlboss through the character of Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) which is all about establishing female supremacy in the corporate space, but what it also wants us to see through and beyond this depiction is the forces and the ideology that produce this level of ruthlessness and depravity in a human being so that feeding her greed becomes central to not just Marla’s success but her very existence and her overriding animus.
It offers a cutting insight into the girlboss and her dark alter ego: the suave sophisticated camera-friendly power woman and her ruthless, selfish, unscrupulous, depraved darker self lurking underneath and determining her actions.
What is also significant is the normalisation of same-sex love and giving it the screen space and semblance which only heterosexual love has so far enjoyed. Neither is there a conversation around ‘coming out’ nor is an attempt made to foreground or highlight the ‘queerness’ of Marla’s sexuality. No big deal is made out of it and the film is refreshing in its human and uncliched portrayal of a same-sex couple who are as flawed or as committed, as corrupt or as invested as any heterosexual couple and not any different when seen through the prism of universal values, by virtue of being queer.
In the film, Marla with her girlfriend and business partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) secures legal guardianship of elderly people who she then transports to a care facility where these rich elderly people in need of assisted living are given top-grade care. So far so good. But apparently it is no more than a racket. On her list are only the extremely affluent, preferably with no immediate family and in league with her is a female physician by the name of Dr. Karen Amos, only too eager to certify these people as unable to look after themselves and recommending them to assisted living with the court assigning Marla as the legal guardian.
Perfectly healthy old people are literally abducted and whisked away to the facility under the pretext of their failing mental or physical health which is orchestrated by Marla and actualised by the physician. It is the doctor’s word against that of the senior citizens. But mostly it doesn’t even come to that since the senior citizens hardly need to be present for the court hearing in case of a ‘medical emergency’ in which they are the medical emergency.
The doctor certifies that they are in need of care and the court authorises the care facility to step in. It’s a neat little all-women racket. The state which is an impersonal entity depersonalises the person in need of care entirely undermining their wishes which is hugely ironical since care work is all about personalising. The elderly person is provided with the best possible comfort and luxury and in the meantime their house is sold and property acquired by the ‘legal guardian’; easier when there is no kin around to meddle.
The idea of ‘care’ and ‘care work’ is reconfigured in a very patriarchal consumerist capitalist context. So what is the film ‘I Care A Lot’ about if not the darker side of the care economy and care labour which is being run to swindle people? Also the kind of care offered caters only at the physical level; it does not look after the emotional or mental needs of the person. The care recipients, the elderly in this case, are literally held as prisoners, mostly sedated without being allowed to step out of the facility or keep any contact with the outside world.
The series seems like a reverse take on women who have always been personified or depicted as default care-givers. And yet the textual tension results from the forces in the backdrop, the narratives that possess all characters of importance in the film, immunising them from pain and compassion. It is about living and getting to be a part of ‘The Great American Dream’ which is referred to in the narrative more than once and also shows how greed knows no gender. As Marla incisively points out, “To make it in this country you need to be brave and ruthless and stupid and focused,” when she is kidnapped by the Russian crime lord Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) whose mother Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) is in her care facility and who she refuses to let go.
The care home, Marla’s whole enterprise, as Dean Ericson (Chris Messina) the mafia lawyer who represents Jennifer Peterson rightly points out is the perfect example of ‘The American Dream’. He does not want to interfere in the functioning of her enterprise of extracting money from the rich vulnerable people and is not here to ruin the racket she is running, milking the ‘cash cows’ as he calls the rich elderly wards of Marla.
So is the American Dream about milking the cash cows? Apparently that’s the ideology that seems to make the mare go at least. Keep milking or manipulating the dreams of those who are the most vulnerable promising them that they will get the most out of it and as part of the ecosystem create space and opportunity for people like Marla to milk them. So it seems that in this great land that is called America, the rich who we think are the most insulated and invulnerable, who have themselves, insured and willed, are in fact prey to and at the mercy of people like Marla who want to be rich, who want all the money they can have so that they can use it like a ‘weapon’ a ‘bludgeon’ the way real rich people do.
At several places the narrative acquires an intertextual quality as it opens into other more significant conversations to do with how women in the world of crime are victims of misogyny and are hated, first because they are women and then because of the things they have done. By Marla’s own admission, the number of times she has been threatened by men – “..thousands” she says and the number of times the threat materialised into a real something –”..two“. She sums it up for Fran who is scared of the threats they are receiving from the Russian mafia and wants her to back out: “For a man, if you can’t get a woman to do what you want you call her a bitch and finally threaten to kill her,” implying that all women eventually whether morally good or bad have to live under this threat in a man’s world.
Throughout, Marla plays a tough cookie. She does not back out or flee the scene even when she has the opportunity to. She chooses to teach her adversary Roman a lesson after being nearly killed by him and how! By using the ‘care’ card. She imperils him so that he is placed in her ‘care’ which not merely cuts him to size but also enables him to realise and acknowledge the very sophisticated and superior strategist in Marla so much so that he proposes to get into a business deal with her and open pan-America care centres which will of course be a front to make a lot of illegal money using perfectly legal means.
So in a sense the narrative is also a critique of and an enquiry into the loopholes in the care economy and the legal system at large which continues to be a juridical system of power more concerned about law than about justice. And how the care economy and care work is also driven by market forces and the overarching consumerist ideology which is as true for the recipients of care as it is for the caregivers.
In an ironic climax Marla is a celebrity and a woman achiever and lauded on national television for her work but more for her fortune, as even the interviewer emphasises through his questions to her, marvelling at the wealth she has amassed at 39 instead of lauding the kind of work she does and thereby undermining ‘care labour’ and validating her for her wealth and material success – again integral to the construct of the ‘Great American Dream’. The audience within the cinematic space and outside of it in awe of Marla, which is consuming this interaction, have very little space to process the larger ideology a tplay over here and yet, by not stating the obvious, the interview clearly wants us to give a thought to the invisible stories behind the success of some of the biggest corporations of the world and wonder if they are fronts for some other operations.
Likewise it is the trap of the American Dream that often turns the space of the care facility into a veritable battleground and the events that unfold become so much like what may happen in spaces of other organisations like the FBI or the CIA which naturally we have access to only as viewers through our exposure to their cinematic depictions. There is abduction and attempted escape and false identities and cross-fire and collateral damage. The interactions between Marla and Jennifer are especially in the idiom of the officer of law and the prison inmate as Marla tries to probe into Jennifer’s real identity and is determined to get to the bottom of Jennifer’s sinister links with people undoubtedly on the wrong side of the law. She even uses torture tactics to break Jennifer. Jennifer in a drugged state rightly calls Marla her ‘guardian robber’. This is a reminder that though Jennifer herself is connected with the Russian mafia, Marla is also actually a scammer who in the garb of the caregiver is swindling people.
As the film progresses and we see Marla, unstoppable moving from success to death-defying success, we are almost taken in by the all-engulfing myth of the American Dream. We want her to fail and yet we want her to succeed. We are sucked into the vortex of her crime and her charisma. We almost begin to enjoy Marla’s unethical success and fall prey to the Great American Dream, her version of it, till it hits us in the gut when a bullet finds its mark and ends it for her. Significantly the man who kills her, someone she denied access to in her care facility to meet his own mother hails her as a ‘bitch’ before gunning her down, again opening up spaces for other speculations with his unmistakeable misogynistic address. Like I said, a plethora of paradoxes wanting us to accept and question simultaneously.
Featured Image Source: a still from the film ‘I Care A Lot’