It’s Not Crime, It’s a Hustle

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.

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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.

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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.

Glengarry Glen Ross (25th Anniversary Flashback Marketing)

I fell in love with Glengarry Glen Ross pretty quickly. It was my first exposure to David Mamet’s writing, hitting me at a time when I was seriously getting into film and beginning to notice the creators behind movies I was enjoying. Over the years I’d see more movies he wrote, including those he directed as well. Like may later appreciation for Aaron Sorkin, I was a sucker for the rapid-fire, ellipse-filled dialogue he specialized in, amazed at how detailed and nuanced it was.

Based on Mamet’s own stage play, Glengarry is mostly set in the office of Premiere Properties, a real estate sales office. The salesmen there are hyper-competitive, always vying for advantage over the others in the office, employing whatever tactics might be needed to close the deal. Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) is the old veteran, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) the slick hotshot and Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) the guys who just want to do their jobs. When an executive from the home office (Alec Baldwin) shows up to explain people will be fired if they don’t meet sales goals, the situation gets even more desperate. Schemes are hatched to somehow access the new, high-quality leads dangled under their noses. One way or another, not everyone will survive the day with their job intact.

With the movie recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, let’s take a look at how it was sold to audiences in 1992.

Considering how unique the movie is and the kind of value proposition made in the trailer below, the poster always struck me as oddly generic. It shows a businessman in a suit and tie with his briefcase walking a tightrope set high in the sky. The impressive cast list appears at the top while the copy point “A story for everyone who works for a living” is near the bottom, just above the title.

While neither the copy or the illustration are inaccurate, they’re also not great representations of the film being sold. It’s pretty bland, without the verve or spirit that could be conveyed. These seem like they could be used for any workplace-set story. Yes, the movie is about that – albeit an amped up, testosterone-filled one – but it’s about how far you’re willing to go in selling your soul to keep that job.

The trailer opens in the middle of the famous speech by Alec Baldwin’s unnamed character as he tells Levene to “put that coffee down” because he wants to make sure all the salesmen in the office know what’s going on. They’re all on the cusp of being fired and the title cards that are intercut with the footage explain these guys will do anything to win. There are conversations that seem to hint at plans to rob the place to gain an advantage, which we soon see has actually happened, leading to accusations and investigations. That’s where the footage ends, though, with the trailer ending by touting the all-star powerhouse cast that’s been assembled.

Not only is the trailer selling that cast, but it’s selling Mamet’s lightning-fast dialogue. Everyone is given a mouthful and the editing of the footage here only enhances the pace at which it’s delivered. It explains the story well enough, but that’s inconsequential. You’re being told the main attraction is the cast engaging in some serious verbal gymnastics.

In some ways, the campaign undersold the movie. The poster doesn’t play to its strengths and even the trailer doesn’t go far enough in selling how dramatic and dynamic the story is. What the audience was promised was a glorified play, which isn’t wrong. It’s just not as pulse-pounding as it could be.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.