Gotta get paid, son, no matter who gets hurt.
John Mahoney gives an unmistakably great performance in Say Anything… even if the character he plays is someone the audience is ultimately asked to condemn. He may still evoke some amount of sympathy or empathy, but he pleads guilty to what in 1989 seemed like a horrible crime: Stealing from the elderly individuals he claimed to be caring for. While his motivations may have been something approaching honorable – wanting to provide the best for his daughter – they didn’t justify the actions he took in their service.
It’s hard, at least for many people like myself, to not think about that movie while watching Netflix’s recent I Care A Lot. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a woman who has made a career of being appointed by family court judges as guardian to senior citizens she and a network of healthcare associates target in order to raid their estates. Grayson is running roughly the same scam James Court was 30+ years ago, but with more overt accomplices and in a way that’s almost impossible to revoke should a relative of one of her marks challenge the court order.
Stick The Landing Or GTFO
Aside from Pike’s blonde bob haircut, the thing that’s been noted most frequently about the film is that the story casts little to no judgement on Grayson’s actions. She’s not held accountable by the legal system she’s manipulated, there’s no justice as we would expect if her character were being investigated on an episode of “Law & Order”. Whether or not she falls victim to a more raw form of justice is vague thanks to some creative editing, but it seems as if she makes it away unscathed.
Criticism that Grayson didn’t face legal consequences for her immorality seemed to be based on the belief that stories need to be wrapped up nicely at the end and offer the audience a sense of ethical and moral closure. We want to make sure that societal norms are being upheld and communicated.
The lack of such consequences didn’t bother me much, but then again I’m the guy who feels the best ending to a modern movie can be found in No Country For Old Men, so it’s possible I’m a sociopath on this front. Others are currently debating whether or not the ending of “WandaVision” was both satisfying and legitimate, as if art can only be judged to be worthy if the final half hour lived up to expectations.
Why this movie in particular struck such a chord was perplexing to me until I read one of the essays in Jia Tolentino’s 2019 book Trick Mirror. In it she talks (and I’m paraphrasing *very* loosely here) about how over the last 20-odd years people have come to believe that everything is legitimate if it’s done in the pursuit of that all-alluring bling. All of life is a scam, the only way to make a living is to engage in some sort of hustle 24 hours a day etc.
They Believe In Nothing…
Such a worldview is disconcertingly nihilist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t representative of reality to some extent. In an era where getting a full-time job with healthcare and a 401(k) is a pipe dream for many while becoming a TikTok influencer seems much more realistic and attainable, if it makes you a buck it’s condoned.
Why should Grayson be held responsible for stealing from senior citizens, then? In fact, why should her doing so be viewed as a crime – or even something to disapprove of – at all? She’s found an angle and is working it, so let’s not judge her. Life is a zero-sum game, so anything I don’t actively work to take is something I don’t have and you might, so you’ll excuse me if I throw under this oncoming bus before you do the same to me.
That same attitude can be found in the real estate office location of Glengarry Glen Ross, where the salesmen engage in tactics they know to be unethical if not illegal because “only one thing matters; get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”
Even then, the story at least made an effort to present the actions of those men as wrong. They are somewhat conflicted about what they’re doing, even if they choose to put their moral compass in the drawer in order to keep the job they need.
Whether or not I Care A Lot writer/director J Blakeson wanted to portray an “anything goes in pursuit of a buck” ethos or simply wasn’t interested in showing how Grayson might get some form of comeuppance is unclear. That choice, whichever way it went, certainly shows how our artistic conscience has adapted over the last 30 years, from one where bad people by necessity must pay for their crimes to one where bad people are simply making different choices for their own reasons and it’s not our place to judge.