This review originally posted in conjunction with Kajillionaire’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated to reflect the film’s theatrical and VOD release.
Logline: A family of extremely petty con artists runs across a woman who’s instantly interested in joining their scams and schemes, until she gets to know them better.
Longerline: It’s been nine years since Miranda July’s last film, The Future, which follows an awkward, immature, aimless Los Angeles couple through their emotional trials over their decision to adopt a cat. Her follow-up, Kajillionaire, feels like the launch of a Miranda July Cinematic Universe: it feels could be taking place at the same time as The Future, just a few blocks over. Its L.A.-based characters are equally awkward and at odds, and July again finds an intense well of sympathy for them, while simultaneously presenting them as close to intolerable. Like The Future (and July’s other film, Me and You and Everyone We Know), Kajillionaire is delicately funny about its characters’ failings and flaws. And like July’s previous films, it’s intensely quirky, both in its characters and in its directorial choices.
Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger star as Robert and Theresa Dyne, an aging couple pathologically devoted to “skimming,” as Robert calls it — eking out a living through teeny scams, from stealing other people’s mail to entering a variety of sweepstakes and giveaways under a barrage of false names. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” Robert grumbles, but getting by through small deceptions seems to be important to his self-identity. The couple raised their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) as a partner in crime rather than as a child — as the fastest runner and most innocent-looking of the trio, she’s often their face for any given scam, in spite of her profound awkwardness and palpable desperation and discomfort with herself.
The trio seems to be in perfect sync, but their partnership hits a crisis point when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a young woman who’s thrilled by their lifestyle and wants in. (“My favorite movies are the Oceans 11 movies, and I’m just pretty psyched about being on an actual heist!” she chirps when she finds out what they’re up to.) Old Dolio is immediately jealous of Melanie’s rapport with Robert and Theresa, and her frustration pushes her to recognize everything her parents never offered her, and seek out something more.
The quote that says it all: Awkwardly trying to explain why she needs Robert and Theresa’s support, Old Dolio tells Melanie, “They’re my parents.” Melanie shoots back, “In what sense?” Old Dolio struggles for an answer, then offers, “We split everything three ways?”
What’s it trying to do? Kajillionaire is part very late-breaking coming-of-age story, and part unlikely love story. But above all, it’s the kind of tale Miranda July specializes in, not just in her films, but in books like No One Belongs Here More Than You and It Chooses You. As usual, she’s fascinated by oddball people on the fringes of society, making flailing attempts at finding happiness on their own terms, even if those aren’t terms anyone else would recognize. This latest film feels like yet another distinctive, funny, gently sympathetic portrait of people who are poorly suited for society, but condemned to live in it anyway.
Does it get there? One of the great pleasures of a Miranda July film is not really knowing where the characters’ goalposts are, and recognizing that they might shift over the course of the story. For much of Kajillionaire’s runtime, it’s refreshingly opaque about its intentions. That style starts with the opening sequence, where the Dynes approach a minuscule theft as if they were planning a casino heist, complete with Old Dolio leaping and rolling around their target building as if acrobatics were in any way relevant to her goal. July keeps their intentions under wraps until the theft finally happens, and all the elaborate buildup for such a lo-fi, petty payoff is just one of the many ways the film earns its laughs. Also on the never-not-funny list: the family’s physical contortions as they try to slip unseen past their landlord to avoid paying rent, and their physicality in general. Jenkins, Winger, and Wood each give their character a different form of comic physical awkwardness, and just the way they stand on a street is telling and giggle-worthy.
But there’s also a fair bit of pathos in Old Dolio’s growing estrangement from her folks, as she obsesses over a few things she learned in a parenting class she attended as part of another petty scam. (The film’s eventual reveal about where her unusual name came from is a terrific micro-story that says everything about her parents. At a post-Sundance-screening Q&A, though, July explained that “Old Dolio” is the name of one of the kittens she and her husband birthed in a friend’s weird dream. Which also says everything about July’s influences and her ability to hang onto weird, useful details for later stories.)
Rodriguez is the film’s lynchpin, though, as a comparatively normal bystander who throws the Dynes’ oddities into sharp relief. It’s so easy to sympathize with criminals in movies, even uncharismatic and unsuccessful ones. Rodriguez’s bright, sunny performance balances out the Dynes’ awkward dourness, and also gives the audience a constant reminder that their scams are pretty awful, and that even when they’re inherently funny in their tiny ambitions, they do actually harm people. Melanie’s sympathy with Old Dolio also gives the film an appreciable heart — it’s never clear where her own friends are, or how she has so much time to spend on a fix-her-up project this damaged. But her kindnesses feed directly into one of July’s most appreciable fantasies, that no matter how weird, graceless, and maladroit we might feel, there’s someone out there that’s ready to really get us on a deep, personal level.
What does that get us? Like July’s other films, Kajillionaire is featherweight and goofy, tapping into deep emotions but not examining them in a particularly deep way. It’s a shiny bauble of a movie, full of irrational giggles and outsized character acting. But the cast works hard at making these losers-at-life distinctive and memorable, and the film builds to a terrific punchline of a sequence as everything comes together.
The most meme-able moment: One of the Dyne family’s many forms of “skimming” involves living in a disused office that they rent for a discount because it’s adjacent to a bubble factory, and one of the walls leaks sheets of fluffy pink foam several times a day. The image of all three Dynes casually using trash cans to scoop the latest massive, slow-motion foam incursion off the wall and dump it down the drain is one of the film’s most memorable images. It also feels like a funny, wry metaphor for dealing with anything unwanted, wearying, and repetitive, from navigating a long and unnecessary group text chain to dealing with excessive demands from an unreasonable boss.
When can we see it? Kajillionaire begins a limited theatrical run on September 25, and will arrive on VOD on October 16.