Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf
Director: Miranda July
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that. The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize. Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior. I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.
Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting. If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences. Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together. Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery. For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.
There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time. Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished. Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire. Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.
A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes. Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit. Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it. How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.
When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold. Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own. Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.
Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure. It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault. Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another. You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously. Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer. With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under. A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.
Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from. These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for. I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie. It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.