Hello, everyone! Last week I watched two movies that I can’t stop thinking about: Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and J. Blakeson’s I Care a Lot. The two could not be more different. Minari is a poignant ode to the experiences of a Korean immigrant family in 1980s Arkansas, the I Care a Lot is a black comedy satirizing the exploitative nature of the for-profit conservator industry in the United States. Despite these differences, however, I came away from both films with the realization that there has been a fundamental change in the way modern cinema views the American Dream. Both movies talk about free enterprise and economic opportunity in the United States, and both come to the similar conclusion that achieving the American Dream is not as simple and morally unambiguous as the many other films portray it to be.
There are enough movies focusing on immigrants attempting to achieve the American Dream that its become its own genre in American cinema. As I was watching the Yi family struggle to eke out success from their farm in Minari, I couldn’t help comparing it to Grapes of Wrath. Despite the latter film being created 80 years prior, both movies have the same essence: a family relocating to an unfamiliar location, working hard, and still failing to wring out any wealth from the unforgiving land on which they’ve settled. One film describes the economic insecurity of the Great Depression, and the other takes place in the 1980s, an era that is generally considered to be one of prosperity and financial stability. Yet Minari‘s first few scenes foreshadow the unreliability of this assumption. Upon arriving at their new home, a trailer in the middle of rural Arkansas, Monica Yi immediately regrets their decision to leave their stable job at a poultry sexing plant in California so that her husband Jacob can try his hand at farming Korean vegetables. Their very first night, their trailer is caught in a violent rainstorm, and a tornado on the horizon forces Jacob to realize how risky his decision to relocate might turn out to be. The film continues in this vein, with the family farm shaping up to be more of a challenge than Jacob originally expected.
By definition, the American Dream is “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” In the 20th century, the term also included the idea that the American Dream would provide the “opportunity for Americans to achieve prosperity through hard work.” Jacob clearly believes in this idea, as he decides to relocate his family to Arkansas and start a farm despite having little experience with the industry. He makes rookie mistakes, but works incredibly hard, much to the detriment of his family’s happiness. Even with his labor and passion, his farm does not succeed. First, it’s thwarted by the fickleness of a small business owner. Then, it’s foiled by the unpredictability of nature itself. The end of the film ends on a bittersweet note of hopefulness, but not with the type of overwhelming financial success and prosperity one might expect from a film about the immigrant experience in America.
Minari is a film about the realities of the American Dream, not the myth. Even though Jacob, his wife Monica, and their two children do everything that they’re supposed to do in order to achieve the American Dream, they still fail, and have to try again in a position of weaker financial stability than when they started. The Yi family has the opportunity to run a farm, but the costs are prohibitively expensive, the quality of the products are unreliable, and the reception from consumers is unpredictable, resulting in the fact that regardless of their opportunity, the chance of success for the family is slim. By telling such a story, the film highlights the weaknesses of the American Dream ethos and demonstrates how easy it is for “dreamers” to fall through the cracks.
Compare this message to I Care a Lot, a movie that seems to be saying the exact opposite statement about the ease of achieving the American Dream. Protagonist Marla Grayson starts from nothing, yet rises to the heights of billionaire entrepreneur through her own wits and talent. Even when she is opposed by those with more money and power than her, she still manages to come out on top. At least, until the very last scene of the film, when Marla is shot to death by an angry relative of one of the thousands of people whose wealth was stolen to build her empire.
Marla, an ambitious entrepreneur who will stop at nothing to reach the top of the ladder, is another type of character that we’re accustomed to seeing in films about the American Dream. Usually these characters are the heroes of the film, and the audience is supposed to admire their tenacity and intelligence, while sparing little thought for the morality of the businesses that propel these characters to success. I Care a Lot, on the other hand, is a film determined to force the morality of these businesses into the spotlight. All the trappings of success that the audience usually sees as symbols of the American Dream, such as Marla’s fancy office, expensive wardrobe, and luxury car, become symbols of her greed and moral bankruptcy. Her company, lauded in the film as an icon of industry, is exemplified as the type of insidiously predatory capitalist nightmare that audiences associate with companies like Amazon and Google. It’s Marla’s abrupt death at the hands of one of the “losers” of American society that punctuates the film’s message. Marla has achieved the American Dream, but only by stepping on the backs of thousands of people trying, and failing, to achieve the same thing, and like them, her attempt to achieve that dream will eventually come with a cost.
The second half of the movie itself is a mess, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how the film played with audience expectations of the American Dream genre, and how in the end, shot those expectations in the head. By all accounts, Marla is someone who has achieved the success promised in the American Dream, but ironically, that success is earned by destroying the dream for others who worked just as hard as Marla, but actually played by the moral “rules.” When we talk about the American Dream on film, we talk about people who have started from the bottom and worked their way to prosperity. I think of films like The Pursuit of Happyness, or of course, The Great Gatsby, though the dream is criticized in that story. Rarely, however, is the story of the American Dream applied to people whose wealth is built off of corrupt and immoral practices, and if those characters do pop up, they are seen as bad apples, and not indicative of the ethos as a whole. I Care a Lot, however, shows that Marla is not an anomaly of the system, but a product of it. She has achieved the American Dream in the purest sense by not playing by the rules, while others who did have failed to reach her level of prosperity. She is the visual representation of a dream that has been corrupted, or a dream that was hardly pure in the first place. Even though she is punished for her sins in the film’s closing scene, the audience is left with the knowledge that Marla is just one of many American Dreamers who have built their success immorally off of others, and that there is no way of fixing a system that not only rewards this behavior, but relies on it to sustain itself.
Minari and I Care a Lot are two sides of the same coin. Minari shows the difficulties of achieving the American Dream from the perspective of people who try to play by the rules and expect that they will be rewarded, I Care a Lot shows that achieving the American Dream is possible, but that it’s a lot easier to achieve it by exploiting the hard work of others. Though they take different routes to get there, both films come to the same conclusion: the American Dream of cinema past is a fantasy, and our country’s unshakeable belief in its reality will lead to our failure. Whether you agree with such a statement is certainly up for debate, but I think that the idea of such a bold statement in two films who share little more than close release dates demonstrates that American cinema’s current attitude towards our long-beloved ideal is less rose-colored glasses and more “a dream deferred.”