I CARE A LOT reveals Netflix’s care for algorithms

It’s a good day to be alive Queens and Kings, because today we’re going to do a quick review of I Care A Lot.

I Care a Lot is a dark comedy thriller directed by J Blakeson and released exclusively on Netflix.

I had some mixed thoughts on this movie, but I mainly wanted to talk about it because it’s the third Netflix original film I’ve seen in the past month and surprisingly I feel the exact same way about this movie as I do the other two. Those other two being White Tiger and The Dig, which could not be more different than I Care a Lot… so what’s going on here? There are three things I wanted to talk about this movie.

I want to talk about the strange creative decisions around the beginning of this movie. I want to talk about deranging depiction of this amoral character. Then I want to muse a bit about how this movie was made in the first place.

Premise

I Care a Lot is about a professional legal guardian who manipulates U.S. Courts to take advantage of seniors. The justice system in America allows judges to declare seniors unfit to make their own decisions if accompanied by a diagnosis from a doctor. The main character of this movie — Marla Grayson, played by an excellent Rosamund Pike — has created a racket between a local doctor, a nursing home director and herself. The way it works is the doctor identifies mentally unfit seniors with a lot of money and declares them unfit to make decisions. The doctor then tells Marla who becomes the senior’s legal guardian and possesses all their stuff. Then Marla puts the senior in a nursing home with no way of contacting the outside world and sells all their stuff for personal profit. It’s a pretty despicable thing to do, but potentially an interesting character to explore. One day, Marla does this scheme to a senior who’s connected to the mob and a very angry Peter Dinklage arrives to settle the score but Marla will not back down. It’s kind of a whacky premise and that’s a lot of what I want to talk about in this movie.

Strange Creative Decisions

After watching three Netflix movies in a month, I am convinced they have some internal list of production requirements for every movie they make. This list undoubtedly includes every movie needing to begin with some kind of summary of what’s going to happen. I imagine this is because they have terabytes of data showing most people drop out of a movie within the first ten minutes. With the competitions of the attention economy, Netflix of course needs to do everything it can to prevent people from doing anything but watching their content all day. So this company — seemingly a celebration of the arts by making film more accessible to more people — it uses its multibillion dollar resources to force all creatives to shoehorn in an extended trailer in the first 10 minutes of their movie. It goes without saying, this makes the movie worse.

I Care a Lot opens with a monologue from Marla justifying her amoral worldview intercut with a montage of one of her victims attempting to retrieve their mother from her scheme. This is a pretty fine introduction on its own, showing the chaos and anger created by her work although she likely never sees that up close. It’s a good way to give the audience the full perspective on her character. She may be the main character of this movie, and we may come to root for her in some way because that’s how stories work, but she’s not a sympathetic hero. That’s what this introduction establishes. That’s all fine, but immediately afterward we get an uninspired courtroom scene where Marla basically reiterates the specifics of her character, her scheme, and the plot of the movie.

Now, there’s a compelling counterpoint here. This movie has a lot of complicated moving parts and you could argue the audiences needs a way to know what’s actually happening in plain English because not everyone can intuitively understand how a doctor’s office could conspire with a legal guardian and a nursing home. And I might agree with you most of the time. But what’s so bizarre about I Care a Lot’s handling of this type of introduction is it flatly redundant. The scenes after this bad introduction show Marla putting together her latest scheme. She calls the nursing home director about a vacancy in his institution that she gets first dibs to fill. She meets with the doctor who explains why one particular senior is a “cherry” because they have no living family so Marla can easily manipulate them. And best of all, we get to see Marla make her case to her own victim when she shows up to her house and applies thinly veiled threats while still pretending to appear as the good guy in the situation. All of this builds an intriguing main character while giving us all the context we need for her story. If you watch this movie and you skip the entire courtroom scene, it not only still makes sense — it is a significantly better movie.

The reason it’s a better movie is because that opening monologue influences every subsequent scene we see with the character. The monologue acts as the “real Marla” and in every scene we see her in afterward we are always searching for her real Marla — the ruthless capitalist who’s willing to extort the disadvantaged for profit. When we watch her interact with medical professionals or justify her actions to her victims, there’s a tension for the audience because we have reason to believe she’s putting on an act and we’re waiting for her to have a crack in the façade.

But we don’t get that experience, because in the first ten minutes Marla makes a very see-through case for her career so audience members barely paying attention will get the memo even if the movie’s playing in the background while they’re cooking mac and cheese. And that courtroom scene not only serves as exposition, but it also blatantly establishes the extent of Marla’s ruthlessness. She has this super aggressive confrontation with a victim outside the courtroom where she makes it very clear she’s a sociopathic bitch.

Personally, I think this detracts from the movie because we don’t see that side of Marla’s ruthlessness until maybe halfway through the movie. It’s almost like the movie was written without this bullshit 10-minute opener and would’ve been way better without it.

And I want to throw in here, this is also true for the other two movies I mentioned earlier. White Tiger opens with its story in media res, so you get a random scene from the end of the story and spend the entire film leading up to that moment. The Dig also gives a broad overview of the purpose of the movie and leaves nothing to be surprised by later. In all three instances the same thing can be said: these creative decisions may have hooked in some viewers to watch past the first ten minutes, but those decisions also flatten the emotional weight of the narrative beats later in the movie. As a result, all three movies feel really by-the-numbers. There’s no tonal or emotional weaving of the story. It feels like something made through focus-testing.

Strange depiction of amoral character

That leads me to my next point which is the strange characterization of Marla, which — yeah — seems like the result of focus testing in the most pessimistic way possible.

There’s a school of thought that screenwriting is actually the art of manipulation. This is best expressed through a bible for screenwriters called “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. This book gets its title from a recommendation made within it to make your main character likable before you progress with the plot so the audience is invested in their story. The book explains how this is relatively simple to do and references an older movie where the opening scene shows the main character saving a cat from getting run over by a car. This is an inside joke for some screenwriters now, for example the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis opens with its main character saving a cat, and that’s actually the only driver for the narrative for 30 minutes or so. Anyway, I’ve read Save the Cat and I thought it was a bullshit book. Maybe a great way to make formulaic movies with no emotion, but nothing earth shattering in terms of advice. The most memorable thing about that book is its many examples of manipulative filmmaking techniques to trick audiences into unearned emotional attachments. Like if the fact a character saves a cat dramatically changes your view on if they’re a good person or not, you’re probably not watching a very complicated film.  

What’s so upsetting about I Care a Lot’s variant of Marla saving a cat is it does so by making her a feminist. Here’s the scene:

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Ok, this guy just had his mother stolen from him by a parasitic purveyor of the worst sins of corrupt capitalism. She has extorted a vulnerable elderly person, sold all of her belongings, liquidated all her assets, and irrevocably devastated this person’s family. She did this on-purpose, it’s not a side effect of some other goal she had, the goal is to manipulate to extort these people into bankruptcy until they are dead. If the word “bitch” is meant for anything, it is used to describe people like Marla. It is deranging to me that some Netflix producer did the calculus of “man, our main character is a rotten amoral villain, how can we turn that around for the audience?” And the answer they came up with was “Let’s make her a boss ass bitch too. That’ll make it ok.” She’s also gay. Fill out that spot on the Netflix writing bingo.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being a feminist. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. But obviously neither of those things make you immune to being an asshole, which Marla undoubtedly is. And whenever the movie feels like it needs to re-up its sympathy for her character it plays on those two points. “People don’t like me because I’m a woman” and “Oh no my poor girlfriend was hurt.” If people don’t like this character, it’s because she belongs in one of the deepest layers of hell. Honestly, she makes the murderers in this movie seem likable by comparison. And it’s not because she’s a woman or gay, it’s because she sucks. As maddening as this was, I should acknowledge the movie does leave a window of potential irony near the end. Which would suggest the people who made the movie may know Marla is a bad actor by using this argument… but I’m not confident that’s the case so it still left me shook.

Movie as Mad Libs

That whole thing was so disturbing to me because it was emblematic of a general problem with this movie which is it doesn’t feel like a creative work, it feels like a movie made with mad libs. What if an amoral gay woman with legal expertise tried to kidnap a mob boss’ mother? There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, but every part of this movie seemed guided by some strange algorithm for audience retention rather than any real storytelling. Like despite themes about morality and perseverance, it’s not really about either of those things. It’s about the next plot beat. It’s about getting you to the end of this movie by dangling bite-sized conflicts until you get to the credits.

I may be making huge assumptions about how this movie was made, but it doesn’t seem implausible given the end product — which is what it is, it’s not really a movie it’s a product to waste your time on. Not unlike a really long doom scrolling session on Twitter or Tik Tok. This movie is just something to do.

And can I say I don’t understand that business model for companies like Netflix. Wouldn’t you rather put out a movie that gets genuine recommendations, rather than trick people into watching something mediocre? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. They must be happy with the results though because I can’t think of a single Netflix move I’ve liked. Some of the TV shows are ok, but they all seem like generic filler.

And that’s what this movie is.

I give I Care a Lot a 2/5. It’s not terrible. If you skip the first ten minutes it’s actually close to an average movie overall, but by the second half it really loses anything it had going for it and you’re just finishing it because, it’s just something to do.

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