Kajillionaire

Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) never stood a chance. Aside from the stupid name, she's got two eccentric parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger). They're con artists who have taught their daughter how to scheme. A typical day for them involves going to the post office, where Old Dolio unlocks a PO box they've rented, sticks her arm all the way through it, and snatches any packages she can feel in the surrounding boxes. The clan then opens them up and tries to sell whatever is inside or return it to a store for cash. These are the people at the center of Kajillionaire, the quirky and funny new movie from writer/director Miranda July.

Trouble arises when the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on a plane. Robert is particularly taken with her, even confessing the scam they're pulling involving the filing an insurance claim on “lost” luggage. Soon, she's part of the enterprise, too, and that changes the entire dynamic. The unaffectionate, non-nurturing Robert and Theresa show Melanie the kind of parental warmth they've never shown Old Dolio – and she resents it. From there, Kajillionaire tracks how the disgruntled daughter starts to consider going her own way, as well as the fears that make doing so nearly impossible.

Miranda July fills her film with all kinds of weird, wacky little details. The family, for example, pays to live in unused office space next to a “bubble factory.” Every few hours, they have to go home to scoop up the pink bubbles that bleed through the wall. (It's a metaphor for their continual scramble to get by financially.) Another oddity is the way Old Dolio engages in a ritualistic parkour routine before walking into a post office. This kind of deliberate eccentricity in a movie can risk rubbing viewers the wrong way. In this case, though, it's used to imply that the family doesn't quite inhabit the world as you and I know it. Their plane of existence is unto itself, because they are so far removed from normal society.

For all the humor in that concept, Kajillionaire still manages to find a heart. One of the best scenes puts the group inside the home of a dying old man, which they intend to ransack. When he expresses a wish to hear coffee cups clinking and dinner being made, everyone pretends to be a normal family for a few minutes. It's a powerful sequence, as we can see how desperately Old Dolio wants it to be real and not just playtime as part of a con.

I must confess that I did not realize I was watching Evan Rachel Wood until the end credits. With excessively long hair, frumpy clothes, and a deep, Napoleon Dynamite-esque voice, she disappears completely into character. The actress is astonishingly good as a young woman with no social skills but lots of feelings that she doesn't know how to express. It becomes a plot point that Old Dolio is afraid of leaving her parents' side, given that she has no clue how to function without them. At the same time, she starts to recognize their toxicity. Wood makes this dilemma come alive.

Richard Jenkins, one of our best character actors, delivers another fine performance as Robert, a guy whose issues have issues. He infuses his character with a sense of desperation that straddles the line between being pathetic and empathy-inducing. Debra Winger (who I also didn't recognize) delivers the goods full-force as Theresa, a woman who cannot love, knows she cannot love, and blames Old Dolio for wanting something she can't provide. Gina Rodriguez rounds things out with a sly comedic performance as a woman who finds these cons charming until realizing how messed up they truly are.

Kajillionaire is perhaps a bit too arch in spots, with fanciful scenes – like one involving Old Dolio wanting to “rebirth” herself in a gas station restroom – that go a tad further out-there than they need to. However, the performances are so winning and the themes so poignant that it's easy to get drawn in. The movie makes you laugh and breaks your heart at the same time.


out of four

Kajillionaire is rated R for some sexual references/language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.