By Elias Savada.
There are ample moments of lunacy and sentiment in Kajillionaire that will provide so crackling good amusement and uplift.”
Miranda July’s new film is all about hard knock lives. The Dyne family – three dubious tricksters – are trying to make it through day by dreary day by grifting in a most unconventional way. In Los Angeles, without a car. If the cops ever caught up with this family, I’d hazard their laughter would be loud, boisterous, and long lasting. I can’t say viewers will react in the same fashion, but there are ample moments of lunacy and sentiment in Kajillionaire that will provide so crackling good amusement and uplift.
Set in a part of town that is evokes its unglamorous side (yet still brightly lit), you’ll spot the drab and morose Theresa (Debra Winger), the disheveled Robert (Richard Jenkins), and their introverted 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). One heck of a grumpy family embarking on one lame-brain scam after another. The misfit parents don’t seem to plan their schemes, but it’s been a lifelong training experience for their agile woman/child, whose education seems to be signature forgery, security observation, and limbo walking. Mom seems to know the best bus routes to their next “operation,” but doesn’t say much otherwise. Dad is the “brains,” but what he lacks in intelligence is made up for with a large dose of paranoia. They may be successful, but their haul never seems to amount to much – a stuffed animal, a necktie, gift certificates!
Indeed, this itinerant group seems more afraid of the numerous California tremors that rock their world than anyone ever catching on to their offbeat shenanigans. But you have to love their wardrobe and makeup! Robert’s unkempt shirt is half in-half out and usually sports a stain that never hides. The women both have long hair that doesn’t appear to have had a brushing in a few years. And Old Dolio, who doesn’t seem to have her heart in the family business, sports an extraordinary loneliness, schlubby attire, a halting voice cadence, and keeps her arms still on her sides while walking – she’s not a swinger. This is an unpretentious production, especially in its wardrobe design. It’s July’s third collaboration with costume designer Jennifer Johnson. I suspect her budget was ten bucks. Fifteen if you factor in the Catholic school girl uniform.
It’s a fine, controlled performance by Wood, and it might be the best film she’s been in since The Wrestler a dozen years ago. Of course most folks know her as the fierce and focused Dolores on HBO’s hit series Westworld. At one moment early in July’s comedy – definitely not a raucous one, fitting more gently into the weird, offbeat variety – she is having a massage. Her tense, fully clothed body is so rigid from her fear of social interaction that it violently shakes and recoils when the masseuse barely touches her. “It’s too much pressure,” Old Dolio blurts out, and that pretty much sums up her isolated existence.
July plays most of her strange little movie like this. The trio of deadpan blue collar crooks she has created (she also wrote the film) could easily be hailed as conquering heroes in our current angst-filled, social-distanced world. They even live in an abandoned, should-be-condemned office space that offers them more seclusion from the outside world. It’s a spartan, leaky area next to a bubble factory (ha!), whose flustered owner (Mark Ivanir) seems to break down in tears whenever he tries to collect the back rent they owe.
The trio of deadpan blue collar crooks July has created could easily be hailed as conquering heroes in our current angst-filled, social-distanced world.”
The family’s insular worldview takes a strange turn during one of their airline lost luggage scams, when mom and dad befriend Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a single woman who works at a mall and decides to become part of the family’s nonlegendary hustles. Her cheerful character adds movement to the film, especially in her growing relationship with Old Dolio, pushing the untamed daughter to confront Theresa and Robert not as her cohorts in crime, but as her parents, the skills for which they are sadly lacking.
This is July’s third feature as a director-writer (after 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and 2011’s The Future), but it’s the first in which she didn’t also act as well. She’s a performance artist and award-winning author, too, who shot the film in her version of L.A. over 30 days. According to production designer Sam Lisenco (Uncut Gems), “There were a lot of aesthetic references about the housing crisis, abandoned 1960s architecture, 99-Cent stores – a mix-and-match world. We were trying to pull from those realities to make a painterly world that was very surreal.”
Kajillionaire takes cosmic fortune to new levels. It may not bring you a wealth of riches, but it will offer a quirky, nuanced offering of heartfelt hope, something we all desperately need right now.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).