James Clay // Film Critic
Rated R, 106 minutes.
Director: Miranda July
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger, and Richard Jenkins
Purposefully bizarre and impossibly human, writer-director Miranda July’s KAJILLIONAIRE is a form of big-hearted love for strange people. July is challenging herself as an artist to fix broken characters by recognizing trauma with humor and genuine connection.
There’s maybe some ominous force keeping less curious viewers at a distance, but giving the wonderfully weird a voice is not necessarily a defensive mechanism. It’s a tool to learn how to open up to the world at large. KAJILLIONAIRE is, however, July’s most accessible film (and it’s technically owned by Disney of all entities), and all of her film projects are searching for a connection. It seems that this time she just may have found the missing piece.
Solely driven on plot rather than vignettes of interconnected characters, July introduces the audiences to a family of not-so skilled but dedicated con-artists (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, and Evan Rachel Wood) fleshing out their latest scheme. They do all this to live behind a bubble factory and routinely have to put a pond of pink suds that seep through the walls into a drain to maintain a sense of space. It can’t be an enjoyable way to live, but people have negotiated toxic behavior for hundreds of years to maintain the status quo. They may work as one unit when it’s time to make short work of the bubbles, although they are all supremely divided on an emotional level.
The trio plays a silly game of moral acrobatics to look out for their well-being and rarely look out for one another. At the center is Old Dolio (Wood), a meek woman (who could either be 17 years old or 40) dressed in a baggy rain jacket and massive blue pants with very long straight hair masking what is already trying to hide herself. Old Dolio craves her parents’ attention, in particular, her mother Theresa (Winger), who seems incapable of showing affection in any way, shape, or form. She’s not been given the skills to become a fully formed person, and July delights in giving her character a sense of discovery.
The film moves at a quick pace with loads of character beats through seemingly minor plot devices, it’s not until Old Dolio’s parents meet the outgoing Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on a plane in hopes of recruiting her for an airline luggage scam does the world start to open up for our socially challenged friend. It’s through Melanie and Old Dolio’s connection do we see the whole performance of social interactions.
Old Dolio has no idea who she is or who she’s supposed to be, and more than likely compares herself to the supremely confident Melanie, going as far to enact an interpretive dance for her new friend. July’s work has always been about the nature of performance, she’s searching for why we do the things we do and that there’s creativity in every acutely weird move we make.
Through the strange ways of speaking and moments surreal irony that are at nearly every turn, it’s easy to think July is just being twee for the sake of doing something strange. July is creating a world with specific comedic timing. She’s in search of humanity within the comedy, not in spite of it all. I found getting to know these oddballs incredibly engaging. Even if you don’t get the same mileage out of watching the grimaces and mumbles July throws up on the screen, that’s OK — it’s called being an outlier for a reason.
Finding a tone like this doesn’t come easy for filmmakers, and July rests upon her actors to communicate with her audience. She’s saying it’s OK to open up and yes, you can be friends with people that aren’t like you — it’s life-affirming in many ways. True, you have to dig deep into finding out what July is getting at. But at its heart, KAJILLIONAIRE is a story of two people becoming friends and nothing more. For that, the film is priceless.
KAJILLIONAIRE releases Friday in select theaters.