PLOT: Old Dolio, the daughter of two con-artists, has been trained her whole life how to live the art of the scam. However, her whole world comes crashing down when a woman named Melanie comes into her life and changes the game forever.
REVIEW: At the outset, Miranda July presents her new movie, KAJILLIONAIRE, as a quirky heist flick, opening with Evan Rachel Wood – clad in long blonde hair and the kind of oversized clothes that would make her a perfect fit at any rock concert in the 90s – pulling off a series of awkward moves in order to sneak into the local post office. But what starts off as a bizarre examination of a family of scammers quickly peels back its odd layers to unveil a rewardingly human story about love, acceptance and breaking out of whatever weird shackles you’ve been wrapped in.
Old Dolio (Wood) is the 26-year-old daughter of two professional scammers, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who are so desperately after any buck they can make that they named their daughter after a local hobo who won the lottery, all in hopes said hobo would leave them money in his will (he didn’t). So now they form the most functionally dysfunctional family you can imagine, looting mailboxes for goods, entering sweepstakes to win prizes to return for cash and living in an abandoned office space near a soap factory, which they get at a reduced price as long as they’re home in time to clean up the pink, sludgy soap leaking in from the walls on a daily basis. There is little love between them, if any, with each member of the family a utility meant to get from one grift to the next, leaving Old Dolio a hollow shell of an adult, who has no concept of what it means to feel any kind of love – literally or figuratively.
That sounds like a bit of a downer, and on some level, KAJILLIONAIRE can be quite dark. But July’s (as both writer and director) keeps everything moving as such a brisk, entertaining pace by using every moment to relish just how off-kilter this family is. They’re like if you mixed an ex-communicated Amish family with a fast-talking con artist working over some old ladies in a nursing home out of their pocketbook money. While mom and dad are plenty cold and calculating – albeit almost endearingly so thanks to Jenkins and Winger – Dolio is the one you’ll end up caring for. She’s aloof of the highest caliber thanks to being shunned from the world by her parents, having no way to deal with any sort of genuine emotional contact. This is established rather poetically when, in trying to scam a few backs out of a masseuse (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is roped into getting a massage, only to get instantly uncomfortable, before weeping tears. Thanks to July’s sensitive direction this moment teeters beautifully between awkwardness and hilarity, all before becoming deeply profound, anchored by what is only the beginning of some career-best work by Wood.
If Dolio is reserved and nigh-animatronic (Wood gives her a hollow voice to match), Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), whom they meet on the plane ride that’s doubling as a con, is the exact opposite. She’s bubbly, personable, bold and flashy – and is instantly down to join the family for some scammin’. Soon, Dolio begins to see the crack in how her parents “raised” her, getting a first-hand education in proper parent care via a workshop she snuck into. She realizes her parents never bothered to hold or speak to her like a normal loving adult would, leaving in her a big hole that stops her from being able to emotionally communicate. How we follow on this journey of reflection and analyzing of her parents’ behavior – especially as they act more loving towards the incoming Melanie – is what gives this quirky tale its’ human soul. The movie as a whole is constantly walking the tightrope of surreal comedy and genuine pathos, and July walks the line with such precision and makes it all come together wonderfully.
While Melanie is welcomed into the family almost too lovingly by mom and dad, she too has her troubles with her mom that prove she’s also not getting the love and attention she needs, bringing her into the acceptance of Robert and Theresa. But these two parents live to disappoint, and soon she and Dolio find themselves coming together to abandon whatever selfish need to try and come out top has been programmed into them, and connect as kindred spirits looking for the same kind of human connection. Amidst the inescapable oddballness of the situations and most of the characters in them, I feel there could’ve been more room to explore Melanie’s life, as so much of what she does seems to be in response to the actions of the family. But Rodriguez is a talented enough actress to subtly convey Melanie’s deeper anguish under the glamourous surface façade, which is just enough to make the strength of her arc shine through.
It would be very easy to dismiss KAJILLIONAIRE as something purely quirky, what with so much on the surface being just that, and with July never letting it up. But underneath the colorful exterior is a movie about coming to painful truths about life, forcing its lead character to come to terms with everything she’s ever known and realizing she’s been victim to a scam herself. For some, those two halves may not make a perfect whole, but thanks to a smart script, tight direction and some excellent performances from its major players, KAJILLIONAIRE is an odd little film that may hit with an unexpected dose of heart. That’s a good kind of grift.