Movie review: Criminal comedy ‘Kajillionaire’ runs off in too many directions
“Kajillionaire” is the third feature film I’ve seen that was written and directed by performance artist Miranda July. It’s also only the third film she’s written and directed, so I’ve got an established track record going.
But it’s also the third film of hers - after “You and Me and Everyone We Know” and “The Future” - that I just don’t know what to make of, can’t quite get my head around. I think this one is a combination comedy-family drama-coming of age-romance-heist film. If that’s an accurate description, it’s surely the first film of its kind.
An opening scene places us in contemporary L.A., where a nonconformist family is in the midst of another, in what must be a long string of, oddball thefts. Dad is Robert (Richard Jenkins), mom is Theresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter is Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, and no, her character’s name is never explained). They’re in a post office, where two of them are decoys, attracting attention, and the third is reaching behind a wall of rental boxes, stealing mail, with hopes that they find something valuable.
It’s a tough way to make a living, but that’s what these folks are attempting to do. And when there’s nothing useful in those envelopes, they’re relegated to talking and arguing about what to do for their next half-baked scheme. Whatever it is they’re doing - including hiding from their landlord, to whom they can’t pay the meager rent - they’re not very good at it.
Nor are Robert and Theresa very good at being parents, seeing as how this sort of life is all they’ve ever shown to 20-something Old Dolio, since she was a little girl. Nor is Old Dolio very good at being a communicative person, since she splits her time between silently glowering and blurting out a few words in gloomy monotones. She only comes alive when moving around and slipping into pointless body contortions that are reminiscent of the Ministry of Silly Walks.
What’s made clear is that this family is always in need of money. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” says Robert, kind of to himself (thereby working the film’s title into the script). But their next screwball scheme should allow them to have enough of it to pay the back rent and have plenty to spare. It involves flying from L.A, to New York, flying back to L.A., and filing an insurance claim against the airline for “losing” their luggage (even though they don’t have any).
It’s on the flight home that Robert and Theresa meet and chat up another passenger - Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who says she likes the idea of scamming people, and is invited to join the gang. But no one has consulted Old Dolio about this, and when she finds out, she immediately marks Melanie as an interloper who is not to be trusted.
But the scams begin, with the trio now morphing into a quartet, and this new, “improved” family making more and more bad decisions, usually to good comic effect, but on a few occasions, are wince-inducing, as when the victims of their crimes are elderly, helpless people.
July might have had a better, tighter movie if she didn’t have a tendency to dip into tangential plotlines or toss in baffling ingredients. For instance, why does Theresa have a limp, or why does the family live in a soap bubble factory/office where they get a rent discount by “running buckets for bubbles,” or why do Robert and Theresa impulsively purchase a hot tub?
July does a good job at presenting the talents and personality quirks of some of the characters. Melanie is a free-spirited, happy person, but no one else is. Robert pretends to know what he’s doing, but he doesn’t. Melanie is an amateur at scamming, but Dolio knows the location of every security camera in every store. In playing these folks, Rodriguez and Jenkins (who’s great at this sort of nervous comedy) are the standouts.
It’s an enjoyable but silly film, with storytelling that’s at times too forced, that July is trying too hard to make whimsical. Unfortunately, its weakest part is in the last few minutes, where it ends on an inexplicable plot turn, making the whole thing feel unfinished.
“Kajillionaire” opens in a limited theatrical release on Sept. 25.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Miranda July
With Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez