You can make a lead character reprehensible — even repellent — and still hold on to an audience, but you’d better not make her dull. “I Care a Lot” is a pitch-black karmic comedy of bad behavior and worse payback; it made a stir at this year’s online Sundance festival and landed unexpectedly on Netflix last week. It features just about the worst person imaginable, a woman who bilks senior citizens out of their life savings by becoming their court-appointed guardian. But in Rosamund Pike’s chilly, hollow central performance you may find it difficult to care at all.
Her character, Marla Grayson, is a tightly put-together shark: razor-edged blonde bob, stiletto heels, blue eyes with nothing behind them. Working out of a faceless office park — the film was partly shot in Boston and the western suburbs — she has judges, doctors, and elder care facility directors in her pocket (played, respectively, by Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alicia Witt, and Damian Young). It’s a tidy scam: Have the aged victims declared incompetent, stash them in a home, and keep them sedated while you empty out their bank accounts and sell the house. We see the helpless rage of one woman’s son (Macon Blair) in the face of a bureaucracy that allows and even encourages the destruction of lives for profit.
In Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), Marla and her partner and girlfriend Fran (Eiza González) believe they have found a “cherry” — retired, wealthy, lacking any living family. In short order, the elegant Jennifer is locked away in Marla’s favored dumping ground, without phone or recourse. Or so it seems. A slick lawyer (Chris Messina) shows up with a mouth full of teeth and a briefcase full of money. Not far behind is a mysterious Mr. Big (Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones”) who seems very, very angry. There are warning signs that would cause you or me to head for the hills but that only make Marla more determined to keep Jennifer where she is.
Those other characters, and all their crosscutting motivations, make “I Care a Lot” work as well as it does. Dinklage, wearing what appears to be Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s beard, conveys exasperation and throttled menace with charisma; even the way he calmly says, “I don’t understand” is weighted with violence to come. Wiest, who doesn’t get as much screen time as one might want, reveals endless layers to her sweet old lady. Messina is a hoot, and González — well, I wish the movie were about her character, as Fran seems to have an inner life her lover lacks.
I know, I know, that’s the point — that Marla is a member of that particular species, the all-American soulless go-getter. She’s not supposed to have a core; her motor’s running on greed. Writer-director J Blakeson (“The Fifth Wave”) tries to deliver a cautionary moral tale while simultaneously messing with the audience’s sense of whom to root for — as the going gets bloodier, you may find yourself on Marla’s side (or you may not). And certainly the escalating mayhem brings a spark to the character’s eye that wasn’t there before. A bit where Marla, having lost a molar in a car crash (don’t ask), drops it in a store-bought carton of milk for safekeeping, is evidence of gracious multi-tasking under pressure.
Too little, too late. Pike has proved her ability to bring multiple shadings to unpredictable roles — see “Gone Girl” (2014), for one — but she can’t create a character if it’s not there on the page, and Marla Grayson is less a three-dimensional person (or even an interesting two-dimensional one) than a symptom of a sick society. And symptoms wear out their welcome pretty quickly. That shallowness renders Marla’s sexuality and stated feminism cynical rather than ironic, and it turns “I Care a Lot” into a lesser Coen brothers movie: No Country for Old Fogeys.
I CARE A LOT
Written and directed by J Blakeson. Starring Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Chris Messina. Available on Netflix. 118 minutes. R (language throughout, some violence).