Writer-director Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” (2020) exists a half-step away from reality, always unapologetically weird but at the same time heartrendingly true. It’s a more delicate take on the themes tackled so well in the larger-scope foreign films “Shoplifters” and “Parasite,” encouraging us to examine nature, nurture and societal influences – and the good and bad aspects of them all – in families.
I’ve never disliked an Evan Rachel Wood performance – she’s been among my favorite actresses since “Once and Again” – but she finds a new branch of her range as Old Dolio. Just typing her character’s name makes me sad. Wood lowers her voice, her eyes and her hair to portray a sheltered 26-year-old. From her first appearance, I was rooting for her to come out of her shell and essentially become Evan Rachel Wood. She is raised by Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), con artists who are so small-time that the police play no role in this story.
Robert and Theresa thought the original Old Dolio might leave his money and possessions to them, seeing that they named their daughter after him. Everything and everyone they encounter presents an opportunity to make a few bucks that will go toward their rent of a rundown office space (which they use as a home) and to continue to avoid getting jobs, an apartment and a bank account.
“Kajillionaire’s” central con is that the trio will fly to New York (they win the tickets in one of the contests they are always entering) and then fly back but “lose” the daughter’s luggage. With the insurance payment, they will come out $1,500 ahead.
But July is interested in four characters, not in plot or theme. Indeed, while “Parasite” and “Shoplifters” show how society can push people into poverty, there’s never any question that Robert and Theresa choose to – as he puts it – “skim by.” While Wood adds a pinch of “Napoleon Dynamite” to her performance (which will be either an Oscar nomination or an Oscar snub), “Kajillionaire” is not a comedy. It’s a hopeful tragedy – with the tiniest spices of quirkiness. In the prime quirky image, the family scoops up the leaking pink suds from the neighboring building’s pipes; it’s why the rent is low.
Rounding out the quartet in no minor fashion is “Jane the Virgin’s” Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, whom Richard meets on the plane. The confident young woman is a foil for what Old Dolio’s life would be if raised normally – mediocre job, mediocre apartment, mediocre income, all above board. Melanie and Old Dolio fascinatingly circle each other as July takes advantage of their sensual chemistry.
July devises several sequences that blend street-level grime and transcendental beauty, notably one in a dark public restroom that morphs into a profound revelation about how Old Dolio sees the world in reverse of what is standard. Emile Mosseri’s music — ranging from dark bass tones to tinkly piano — regularly teases out emotions.
“Kajillionaire” is a less substantial film than those other heartfelt tales of con families. Yet it’s a different and fresh type of tragedy because Richard and Theresa are so clearly exercising a choice rather than being forced into this lifestyle. Because it’s labeled “crime” on IMDb, it will draw an unintended audience that will bring the rating down, but for what July’s film aims to be, it’s an original little gem for the heart and mind.