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Ruthless and Rootless 

I Care a Lot and Nomadland

click to enlarge Maintaining social distance while judging you.

I Care a Lot

Maintaining social distance while judging you.

I CARE A LOT. There has been a movement afoot, particularly in the last 20 years or so, among creators and critics in advocacy of the unlikable protagonist. And it makes sense: From a storytelling standpoint, exploring the vague borders of personality in order to subvert the dominant hero/villain paradigm can be a deeply satisfying thought exercise. In terms of modern/feminist/progressive criticism, flouting the convention of pleasantness as a measure of worth serves as part of the greater work of widening the lens of acceptability and validity through which we view art, whether it be "serious" or "popular" (although part of the same work lies in removing that distinction).

Philosophically, I'm all for it. I tend toward the dark places anyway and I admire the challenge of creating a compellingly nasty character/narrative. But there's the rub. The work has to be compelling, the character (or characters) realized enough that we care about them, or at least want to see what they get up to in spite of our aversion. It is a delicate balance worth striving for and, ostensibly, the aim of J Blakeson's I Care a Lot, which never quite pulls it off.

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), she of the perfect haircut, great clothes and mirthless smile, would be the unlikable protagonist in question. A grifter and, from the evidence presented, something of a sociopath, Marla is uninterested in not being rich; she tells us this much in an unnecessary bit of opening narration. And so, making use of her innate avarice, her skill as a manipulator and the cooperation of a like-minded doctor (Alicia Witt) and care-home administrator (Damian Young), as well as a seemingly unwitting, well-intentioned judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), she conspires to force elderly people out of their homes under the false flag of her role as a court-appointed guardian. She then dissolves their assets, separates them from any family members who might get wise and, one assumes, literally laughs all the way to the bank. Along with her partner in life and crime Fran (Eiza González), Marla has built a thriving enterprise and amassed a small fortune, but it isn't enough. So when Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a recent retiree with significant wealth and no inconvenient hangers-on, appears on her radar, she becomes an obvious target. And when Jennifer's holdings turn out to be much more titillating than bank accounts, Marla finds it positively delicious.

But of course nothing is quite so simple, and Jennifer turns out to be connected to a self-described "very dangerous man" (Peter Dinklage) who is deeply concerned both about her welfare and the purloined assets formerly in her possession. And so follows an increasingly implausible, unfortunately shallow cat and mouse game played, on both sides, by people it is basically impossible to like.

I Care a Lot is undeniably stylish and better put-together than it could be, but that minor elevation serves more to suggest what might have been than to actually add to what is. The scenario is strong and the cast admirably committed to it, but as the "real-life" implications of a con artist caught by a murderer start to unfold, the verisimilitude of the movie falls apart. It is neither gritty nor cartoonish enough to justify its minor mistakes nor the suspensions of disbelief and leaps of logic necessary to stick with the story. Further, it is never as nasty as it and its characters would pretend to be. Annoyingly unlikable? Sure. Frustratingly promising? Definitely. R. 158M. NETFLIX.

NOMADLAND. There is some small, simple poetry in the idea that this, the latest from Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017; Marvel's Eternals, TBD) would be perhaps the most talked-about, awards-contending movie of 2020. That's partly because it is an artful work of small, simple poetry itself, but also because it is about a uniquely American strain of isolation: a social disease bred and broadcast by the centralization of wealth, the destabilization of community and the lack of institutional support available to many of those in need. And there is something appropriate in its timeless, prescient vision of loneliness, as well as the fact that now, a year or more after it was screened at festivals, it has been unceremoniously released on one of the least noisy streaming services.

As to the work itself, Nomadland is as good as everyone has been saying. It comes from a deceptively simple school of character-based verité, relying on the small stuff of lives lived for its drama and raising them up with careful focus and painstaking technique. The movie presents itself as almost formless, and it is a testament to Zhao's light touch and visual sense, both as a director and editor, as well as to Frances McDormand's devastating, sweet, often very funny performance, that the story feels warm and lived in, instead of meandering or distant. R. 107M. HULU.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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