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.

How Say Anything… Introduced Me To Steely Dan

I knew of Steely Dan before 1989, but wasn’t familiar with much of their catalog. This was in the middle of the 15 year hiatus the band was taking, so it wasn’t as if there was a buzz about it, or that they were a regular presence in the “New Releases” section of the record stores I frequented. I had heard a few songs on the radio, but that was about it.

While everyone remembers John Cusack holding the boombox outside Ione Skye’s window and blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” as the iconic music scene in Say Anything…, to me it was a different moment. For me it was John Mahoney singing happily along to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

Maybe that’s because it signalled a much different point in the character arc than “In Your Eyes” did. As Mahoney, who plays the father of Ione Skye’s character, is driving along he’s celebrating. His over-achieving daughter has been accepted to a prestigious overseas study program, something that will look great on a college application and introduce her to all sorts of important people. He knows this but she doesn’t and he’s going to give her the good news.

In this moment he’s at the pinnacle of happiness. His daughter will go on to great things and everything he’s done will be worth it. What he doesn’t know at this point is that the lengths he’s gone to in order to provide for his daughter are about to catch up with him and ruin that relationship. So, right then, he’s doing what any middle-aged father would do to celebrate: Sing along to a favorite song on the radio.

Not being familiar with Steely Dan beyond a few songs here and there, I was intrigued by this choice. It was a little…esoteric, I thought at the time. At the time I wasn’t familiar with writer/director Cameron Crowe’s background to the extent I am now, so his choice of twisted, irony-laden AOR, art-school rock seemed unusual, certainly different than the “classic rock” that was emerging in the music industry at the time. A few years later, having read more about Crowe and seen more of his movies, getting a sense of his musical leanings, it made much more sense.

For years, this was a shibboleth among my friends. If you were at a bar and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” came on and you didn’t start singing it like Mahoney in the movie, you lost.

(Side note: It was also common to, when asked why you couldn’t go out on a particular night, respond with “I’M INCARCERATED, LLOYD!!!”)

I wish I could say I became an instant devotee of the band after that, but the reality is different. Steely Dan continued to exist in the background of my musical life for the next 15 years. Occasionally, while perusing The Crow’s Nest (a now-defunct record store in Chicago’s Loop) I’d consider buying Citizen Dan, the 4-CD collection of most all the band’s music through its dissolution in the early 1980s, but never pulled the trigger. Loved the songs on the radio, never dove any deeper.

That changed about three or four years ago when I finally decided to explore what I’d been missing on Spotify. Of course I was hooked and couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on. The hooks, the dark lyrics that contrasted with the smooth horn arrangements. Donald Fagen’s grizzled, gin-soaked vocals. And Walter Becker’s effortless, precise guitar and bass parts.

I’m listening to Steely Dan as I write this, just a few days after Becker passed away, and enjoying it all over again. As “Rikki” comes on I’m picturing Mahoney drumming on the steering wheel, looking around at traffic and bursting at the seams with pride in his daughter, pride that will set him up for a massive fall from grace only moments later in the movie’s story.

Here’s to Becker, one half of what Matty Karas in this morning’s MusicREDEF called a “two-man hivemind.” May the music he created never be dismissed as “yacht rock” again.

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