It is a truly impressive feat for a filmmaker to perfectly close the story they are telling just before the credits roll and, at the exact same second, have an audience truly care about what happens next. For such a thing to occur, the film has to be built in exacting fashion and the audience has to be invested in that which came before – both the story and characters. Writer/director Miranda July has accomplished exactly this with her latest movie, “Kajillionaire,” a quirky, heartfelt, lovely comedic drama (or maybe dramatic comedy).
The film finds Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins), along with their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), pulling one small con job after the next. The exact root causes of their lifestyle are barely hinted at, but this is a family that lives on the margins of society, scamming and stealing from anyone they can.
At 26, Old Dolio is a basket of nerves, hating what she does, unable to escape, and never having experienced the kind of love and nurturing environment that many of us take for granted. She has her parents, yes, but they have always been so wrapped up in teaching her their version of the world that eschewed all traditional forms of parental love.
July makes Old Dolio’s place in the world clear from the outset, as Theresa and Robert force her to pull these cons and even follow her into places if she’s been there too long. Old Dolio is too tense to allow a masseuse to touch her without wincing in pain. It is tragic, yes, but July and Wood give it to us in a comedic wrapping. For the audience, the blow is softened but the wound it causes goes just as deep. We all feel as though there’s been a time in our past when we have been just as tense and all know what Old Dolio’s response must mean in regards to the weight she’s been carrying for years.
That comedic wrapping, the one that lets us in to feel Old Dolio’s pain, is there for Robert and Theresa as well. Everything about them speaks of this perfect mix of comedy and tragedy – their actions are regularly funny, but in an undeniably upsetting manner. They have to keep coming up with a way in which to not pay their landlord for the horrific office space they use as a home. As amusing as those shenanigans are, these are still people who simply cannot afford somewhere to live.
Taking place in Los Angeles, a recurrent theme in the movie is that of “the big one,” the big earthquake that will knock everything down and take a huge number of lives when it hits the city. During every tremor in the film, the family stops, afraid to touch anything in case it’s electrified. Those who have lived in L.A. and felt the tremors know that fear and can empathize (as can so many others), but Theresa, Robert, and Old Dolio take the fear that much further. It is funny, yes, but that humor speaks to an underlying terror. Their reactions may be outsized, but they are real for them – they are experiencing the fear and anxiety, even if it’s over the top.
At one point in the film, during a scam to claim money for lost airline luggage, the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), and the entire dynamic changes. Melanie makes the whole family feel something that has been missing for years – love. As she gets tangled up in their ways, Melanie sees the strains they are all under and finds herself needing to decide how far she wants to go with these folks, and in what fashion she wants to get there.
July makes Melanie our way into this family. Yes, we know the mechanics of the family before that point, but it is through the eyes of the outsider that we truly get to the core of them. Rodriguez is so very good at giving us this character who brightens up the entire space and, in doing so, sheds a white hot light on what is happening.
The film, as great as it may be, is not perfect. Melanie’s issues are dealt with to far less a degree than the family’s. We know from very soon after we first see her that she’s clearly got stuff she’s working through, but those issues tend to take a backseat to the others, or, they end up being used as a different way into the family’s issues rather than fully explored on their own.
Winger’s Theresa, too, ends up on the backburner more than feels right. More than once, “Kajillionaire” feels as though it is going to spotlight Winger in the same way that it gives opportunities to Wood, Jenkins, and Rodriguez, but then, too quickly, it moves on to something else. In those brief half-moments, we get something incredible from the actress and the audience is left desperately wanting more.
Despite its flaws, “Kajillionaire,” is still an immensely enjoyable, feel good, rather depressing film. In theaters and on VOD this week it isn’t only worth watching, it’s worth thinking about after.
photo credit: Focus Features