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Non-Review Review: Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire is “quirky”, in a manner that is typical of the modern American independent film.

Miranda July’s third feature-length film operates on its own distinct wavelength, populated by eccentric and exaggerated characters who exist in a world caught in a twilight zone between the mundane and the surreal. Kajillionaire has a distinct sensibility, which it signals as early as a shot of its leading trio trying awkwardly to evade the landlord desperately seeking overdue rent. Kajillionaire operates at a level of heightened reality that immediately gives it a “marmite” flavour.

However, if the viewer can get past the abundance of quirk, there’s a lot to enjoy in Kajillionaire‘s study of emotional dysfunction. Kajillionaire is a con artist movie about a family living on the margins, but one that doesn’t seem particularly interested in the art of the con. Veteran hustlers Robert and Theresa are well removed from the smooth operators of films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Matchstick Men or The Brothers Bloom. Instead, they are a mess of contradictions and maladaptations.

Kajillionaire works largely due to its wry sense of humour, which manages to offset a lot of what might otherwise be suffocating quirkiness. It also benefits greatly from a set of impressive performances. Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins do good work as Robert and Theresa, but the film belongs to Evan Rachel Wood as their daughter Old Dolio and Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, the character who quickly gets swept up in their hijinks.

The basic plot of Kajillionaire is remarkably straightforward as hustle movies go. Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio operate a series of low-level cons in order to subsist in Los Angeles. There is no particular art or grace to their scheming. An introductory scam has Old Dolio simply stealing mail, with Robert being particularly impressed when one package contains an expensive tile. When Old Dolio ends up with a voucher for a massage, the trio are frustrated to discover it has no cash value, and even try to swap it for a physical object they might be able to grift.

Kajillionaire largely strips the artistry out of the con, making it very clear that Robert and Theresa are living from one hustle to the next. Robert is extremely paranoid and conspiratorial, constantly warning his daughter about the dangers of “the system” and about how people who live more conventional lifestyles just long to be “kajillionaires” while he “prefers to just skim”, but it is very clear that Robert himself is just as guilty and just as greedy. It isn’t that Robert and Theresa have rejected the trappings of materialism, it is that those trappings never materialised for them.

July’s script is very canny in this respect, stripping away the romance of one of the archetypal American rogues. Kajillionaire is primarily rooted in the strange and dysfunctional relationships that Robert and Theresa have with the two young women in their care; their daughter Old Dolio and the young woman who gets caught up in their scamming. Indeed, Melanie initially seems charmed by the older couple, swept up in the fantasy of the elegant con, only to quickly find herself disillusioned by the mundane reality of it all.

Kajillionaire works better than many similar independent films for a couple of reasons. July manages a deft balance between the emotional reality of the characters and absurdity of the world in which they operate. The leading trio are essentially live action cartoons, with Evan Rachel Wood in particular leaning into a goofy physicality as Old Dolio, sneaking behind a wall like she’s partaking in a limbo operation. Robert’s attempts to class himself up typically include wearing an expensive item of clothing over his tattered and well-worn every day wear.

It helps that the script is genuinely funny. When Robert suggests that the family might have to pay the rent in installments, their landlord counters, “Rent is an installment!” Watching golf, Robert allows himself to get swept up in the excitement, exclaiming, “He scored a one-holer.” As Old Dolio demonstrates her aptitude at cheque fraud, Robert explains that Old Dolio “learned to forge before she could write. Actually that’s how she learned how to write.”

However, Kajillionaire truly benefits from a set of winning performances. Gina Rodriguez is impressive as Melanie, effectively the straight woman of the group who enjoys the idea of slumming with the gang. (“My favourite movies are the Ocean’s 11 movies,” she explains.) However, it’s Wood who most skillfully manages to pitch her performance to the movie around her. She plays Old Dolio as a female equivalent to the classic Los Angeles slacker archetype, but layers some emotional nuance beneath what might otherwise be a caricature.

The emotional beats of Kajillionaire occasionally get a little bit lost beneath the film’s quirky and stylised aesthetic. This is particularly true in the film’s first half, as July sketches out the world and the routine of her lead characters. However, there are moments when the film’s emotional reality shines through. Kajillionaire is uneven and unfocused, occasionally mistaking eccentricity for characterisation. However, it works best when it trusts its lead characters and its wit to guide the audience through.

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