Kajillionaire is writer-director Miranda July’s first feature film in nine years, and while it’s set in the present day, you’d be forgiven for thinking the movie is a lost film from over 20 years ago. So much of the ‘90s indie film aesthetic can be seen here: Characters are dressed mostly in track suits or old, frumpy clothing as they wander around Los Angeles streets that look like an urban wasteland, their movements tracked by a score by Emile Mosseri that sounds like an amalgamation of the Dust Brothers and Jon Brion. Pervading the film is a sense of ennui, particularly of an economic variety — the sunny and colorful, slightly off kilter world July photographs (along with cinematographer Sebastian Winterø) is straight out of a Radiohead music video, and the quirky and twee vibe the film creates by juxtaposing its existentialist melancholy with its misfit comedic characters feels like a Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze movie.
July transcends all of those comparisons, however, by never letting her film slip into unhinged flights of fancy or detached hipsterism. Instead, Kajillionaire is remarkably empathetic, and balances its wacky comedy with a tender love story. Part of July’s unique way of pulling off this tonal juggling act is engendering empathy for her characters. Lifelong con artists Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), are wacky right from the first minute of the film, ripping off mail from a post office like they’re executing an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist and speaking in their own bizarre, paranoid patter. As July introduces more of their world, however, it’s revealed to be just as skewed as they are: The family lives in what used to be an office space beneath a bubble factory that keeps leaking, parenting seminars involve adults role playing as babies, and virtually no one behaves in an average, “normal” way.
The cast is uniformly fantastic, as each actor portrays a character that fits neatly into the film’s world yet is delineated enough to be individually unique. As Theresa and Robert, Winger and Jenkins are hilariously cold and calloused as they care more about making a quick and easy buck than their own daughter, while Wood’s Old Dolio is emotionally stunted and shy — she finds it hard to express and assert herself, while her parents seem to not have a filter. The trio has a chance meeting with Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who at first seems to be an average L.A. woman who can act as the audience’s proxy, but even she gleefully follows the grifter family into their odd universe — in large part due to her romantic interest in Old Dolio. As Melanie eventually introduces Old Dolio to her normal apartment, it’s like watching a quirky comedic version of Jodie Foster in Nell (1994). If even this woman can like — let alone love — these weirdos, July seems to say, we can, too.
Kajillionaire, being a character-based movie, is one of the rare films about con artists that’s not intricately plotted. This isn’t a movie where the grifters prepare an elaborate scheme, or seek to escape the law, or some such device. Instead, the movie follows its central quartet as they float from opportunity to opportunity, taking on increasingly odd ways to cheat someone out of their money that continually puts them in the hands (sometimes literally) of another human being, forcing them to reconnect to the human race they initially seem to have left behind. Thanks to these encounters, the criminals who see everyone as either a potential asset or mark rediscover (or discover for the first time, in Old Dolio’s case) what it means to be a feeling, caring person. In presenting their world to be one where everyone is unhappy with their economic status, July makes this transition a moving one, and firmly places the movie in the present day rather than the ‘90s.
Ultimately, the film is the next sentence in a conversation America and its art have been having recently about capitalism and class, and how deadening those institutions can be. Robert and Theresa think that, in their closing themselves off from affection and refusal to play by anyone else’s rules but their own, they’ve gamed the system, while Old Dolio and Melanie are trapped by their statuses and yearn for love and a better life. Money and material goods aren’t of real importance — “it doesn’t matter,” repeats Melanie during a climactic scene. The big score everyone is looking for is right in front of them, and it turns out to be each other. Not everyone can appreciate that gift, and not everyone will vibe on July’s wavelength — her style is admittedly unique enough to alienate some on its oddity alone. If you can accept those surface quirks and look beneath, however, you just might strike it rich.
(Screened at the Sundance Film Festival)