Writer/director Miranda July’s first feature film, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, was a profoundly weird movie that earned her lots of acclaim. Her second, 2011’s The Future, was equally strange, but not quite as successful. Nine years later, she’s finally back with her third film, Kajillionaire, that has her trademark absurdity and, for the first time, a top-notch cast.
The strangely-named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is the daughter of two eccentrics, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who have never met a scam they haven’t wanted to try. They live in an unused office next to a factory, for which they constantly put off paying rent, and where mounds of pink bubbles come through the walls on a daily basis. Their wardrobe consists of discarded or free clothes that don’t fit them at all. And the parents treat their daughter as someone who’s only useful for their next con, not as someone to be loved for who she is.
It’s clear that the co-dependent relationship is bad for all parties, but Old Dolio seems to have no will to finally go out on her own. In the middle of another attempted ploy to get money for free, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is both charmed and repulsed by the parents. When Melanie, who’s barely making ends meet herself, starts hanging out with them, a needed crack between Old Dolio and her parents starts to form.
July has a style that is inimitable, because few others would think up the ideas she commits to film. Each of the three main characters is someone who would be the kooky neighbor in a mainstream film, and yet here they’re the main attraction, with the film living and dying on their actions. When you’re first getting to know them, the way they act is hilarious, but the more the film goes on, the sadder they get.
The tenuous nature of their bond seems to be represented by a series of small earthquakes that freak out the family but which barely faze their fellow Los Angelenos. It’s one of several devices that July uses to comment on their relationship, including a parenting class Old Dolio attends as part of another moneymaking scheme that puts into stark relief how poorly she’s been treated her entire life.
The film has a definite forward momentum, but it will also test the patience of many viewers. July’s point of view is an acquired taste, and if you’re not willing to accept her atonal rhythm, the film will likely drag. For all others, it contains a slew of small pleasures that add up to something deeper, if not completely fulfilling.
Each of the main actors buys in completely to July’s style. Wood speaks in a mumbling monotone and walks in a shuffle that are both highly effective toward knowing the type of person her character is. Despite the off-putting nature of their roles, Jenkins and Winger know how to keep them compelling. And Rodriguez is a ray of sunshine whose performance off-sets the dour nature of the story.
Kajillionaire is not a movie for the masses, but anyone looking for a different type of film with great acting could do a lot worse. July challenges the regular ways of telling a story, and she succeeds in making movies that are uniquely hers.
Kajillionaire opens in theaters on September 25.