Who Wants to be a Kajillionaire?

In Miranda July’s latest, a family of weird grifters skim off the surface of Los Angeles

Writer/director Miranda July always seem to channel her work from some subconscious realm. Her voice is so odd, and so raw, that I’ve generally found it hard to use conventional description for it. But I like the way her language lodges in my brain. The characters in her new movie Kajillionaire are no exception: She’s said the name of Evan Rachel Wood‘s character, Old Dolio, came from a dream her friend had about July giving birth to kittens. That tracks.

KAJILLIONAIRE ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Miranda July
Written by: Miranda July
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez
Running time: 106 min

The plot of Kajillionaire is probably the closest to straightforward July has come, though I suspect a lot of viewers will still be scratching their heads at the end. It’s about a family of very low-level scam artists (Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Wood) in L.A. who intersect with a young woman (Gina Rodriguez) they draw into their scheming.

Or can anyone even call you a scam “artist” when life has reduced you to living in an old office space in a chemical bubble factory, which regularly gushes mounds of pink foam down one wall? Robert (Jenkins) and Theresa (Winger) Dyne, swathed in ill-fitting thrift clothes and bad hair, seem borderline indigent but are always fired up for the next score. They dispatch their daughter (Wood) to steal mail and collect ill-gotten reward money. They named her for a homeless man who won the lottery because they thought he’d leave them some cash. (He didn’t.)

Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Debra Winger in Miranda July’s weird grifter comedy ‘Kajillionaire’.

Wood brilliantly plays her character as alien and feral, a lurching figure under a depressed mop of fundamentalist-esque locks. She wears a comically large tracksuit and holds her arms awkwardly in front of her, as if she’s not quite sure what to do with them when she’s not pilfering. She’s a Frankenstein of a daughter, crafted into a sentient heist vehicle for her narcissist parents, who view the very notion of parental affection as “fake.”

Wood’s voice here is low and raspy, as if she’s not used to using it. To understate, her parents have never exposed her to any cultural pressure to be girly. She reminded me a lot of Clee, a character from July’s novel The First Bad Man, which July reads herself in audio format. She gives Clee, who hooks up with the female narrator, a similar untamed growl, and a similar wildness. Another woman who lives outside propriety, raised by wolves. I wondered if this was July doing lesbian-voice, then doubted it, then looked it up. What I learned: This is Wood’s natural voice. But also yes, July thinks a lower register ties into queerness. The more you know.

Gina Rodriguez’s Melanie, who meets the trio on a plane trip as they’re amid a lost-suitcase con, is Old Dolio’s polar opposite: Outgoing and quick to laugh. In slinky clothes, she’s a siren for Robert and Theresa and a source of confusion for Old Dolio, who resents that her parents like Melanie, but finds herself drawn in too. Melanie’s an avatar of conspicuous consumption, glued to her glittery smartphone and fake nails, but also the story’s sole example of real human warmth.

Kajillionaire feels like a very American answer to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. This clan of poverty-level grifters is highly untalented at what they do, and uninterested in anything as complex as exploiting the psyches of the people around them. They don’t even aim for fortune and glory. They just want, as Jenkins’ character says, to skim. And disdain everyone who doesn’t.

On a more intimate level, this feels like an exploration of what happens when people do parenting very, very badly. Old Dolio seems like no one has ever touched her gently in her entire life. Her attempt to cash in on a massage gift certificate is moot, because she jolts painfully when a hand even rests on her back. July’s eye for bright color, and absurdist touches–as in the contortions the family go through to avoid being seen by their landlord–lighten this mood, but not by much.

Mortality also looms in the form of occasional earthquakes, which feel unintentionally timely (July filmed the movie  2018) given the region’s wildfires. Theresa and Robert obsess about when the Big One’s going to hit, while Old Dolio experiences a rebirth of sorts after a tremor scare. It’s a rare moment of joy and catharsis in this long stare at people who view those sorts of things as trite. “Ha ha ha, cry cry cry,” Robert says dismissively of our culture. With a wink, July’s made that line available on a $125 Kajillionaire promo sweatshirt.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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