Kajillionaire by writer and director Miranda July (Me, You and Everyone You Know) is a strange, sad, weird, and sometimes amusing experience. It feels like a slightly nicer version of Parasite where it also follows a family of con artists but isn’t as messy. Kajillionaire is more about the emotional baggage the main character has developed from years of grifting with her two small time crook parents. The movie is billed as a “comedy” although it isn’t exactly hilarious, more like fitfully funny as the oddball characters learn a bit more about their emotions while running schemes. There’s a definite sense of inner life to these people so when Kajillionaire goes for emotional pathos, it really works.
Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is living in an abandoned office space with her parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger). With their minimal, and very illegal, rent payments running low to their “landlord”, the family runs small cons for cash, like stealing mail or forging cheques. On a flight they meet the beautiful and energic young woman, Melanie (Gina Rodriquez), who wants to get in on the scams. As Old Dolio’s parents are emotionally distant she starts to form a bond with Melanie that may upset the crew’s operation.
A lot of the movie is focused on the family running their schemes as the audience is dropped right into the middle. The opening has Old Dolio doing jumps and rolls to evade security cameras outside of a postal office like an awkward SWAT team member. Their post office drop box break-in plan is ingenious and effective, even though the various “prizes” they net is a small amount of cash and a necktie. This small haul leads to them constantly trying other schemes with limited success. While when they return home they are literally dodging the landlord by walking underneath a fence at an awkward angle in a really funny visual. They have a few chats with the landlord where the father tries to negotiate a monthly payment which has some decent laughs as the landlord’s reaction is very loud and angry, telling them pointedly that “rent is a monthly installment!”
The quartet of actors infuse each character with a distinct identity. Evan Rachel Wood takes a huge swing with giving Old Dolio with a really awkward vocal accent however it does work as she seems hugely withdrawn. It is a great physical performance as Wood’s body language is all hunched shoulders and small steps, conveying she is withdrawn from everyone. Even the few moments she tires to reach out emotionally to her parents they either ignore her or put her down. Her withdrawn nature pays off later when she has a cathartic breakthrough. All her life her father is warning her of “the big one” earthquake that will crack the world in two and when she survives a moderate tremor she has an entirely new outlook on life, greeting and thanking strangers. It’s a quirky, amusing moment that isn’t exactly hilarious but more weirdly heartwarming.
The parents are so focused on their moneymaking they’ve basically stopped viewing Old Dolio as a daughter and just a younger and more agile asset to incorporate into their grifting. Jenkins as the father has sporadic freak outs when things don’t go his way and he constantly spouts off distrust of various systems. The mother is even more emotionally closed off to her daughter, even saying at one point that showing a connection isn’t something that they are capable of doing. She won’t even call her daughter “Hon” but Old Dolio points out that if they were on a job, she could have totally done it. In one strange scene, they enter a house of a dying man and while Old Dolio actually feels sympathetic for him, the folks are just ransacking the place to score loot. She is attempting a brief moment of human connection, which is rare for her, and her concerns are summarily dismissed by her parents.
As the newcomer to the codependent family, Melanie has fascination that slowly curdles over into revulsion when she realizes how they are treating her and Old Dolio. When Robert approaches Melanie unexpectedly about an idea he has, the reaction of slow dawning disappointment that Rodriquez shows is brilliant. The connection that develops between Melanie and Old Dolio feels profound. There are a few twists as Old Dolio evolves her relationship with Melanie and questions if her parents care about her and both plots intertwine and pay off in a fantastic final shot. Like any good movie about grifters, there are reveals inside of the cons. This is not a huge heist movie but it has little twist elements that pay off more emotionally than anything.
Advertising Kajillionaire as a comedy really isn’t entirely true, it’s more offbeat and strange than containing actual jokes, but it is an interesting, poignant look into someone trying to break out of their emotional confinement into something more resonant. It is a unique and different experience about messed up people trying to keep their head above water, even if they miss connecting with the people who they are supposed to be closest to.
Director: Miranda July
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez.