‘Kajillionaire’ Review: California Scheming (with a superb Gina Rodríguez)

A review by Jeanette Catsoulis for The New York Times.

Miranda July’s third feature follows a family of small-scale swindlers in a deceptively sunny Los Angeles.

Before watching the oddly titled “Kajillionaire,” I had thought myself immune to the appeal of Miranda July’s strange and excessively whimsical movies. Suffused with coyness and childlike characters, bizarre visuals and eccentric behavior, her two previous features — her 2005 debut, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and “The Future” in 2011 — had left me more irked than entertained.

At first glance, “Kajillionaire” seems more of the same as we watch the Dyne family, three low-rent grifters in Los Angeles, ply their trade. While Robert (Richard Jenkins) and his wife, Theresa (Debra Winger), stand guard, their 26-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), twists and rolls her body into a Post Office to pilfer from the mailboxes. Her contortions, designed to avoid security cameras, give her the appearance of a peculiar parkour artist, an urban animal lost inside an outsized tracksuit and desiccated curtain of hip-length hair. The three, perpetually alert for whatever they can steal and whomever they can scam, appears less a family than a well-rehearsed team, communicating in shorthand and splitting its meager gains three ways.

For too long, the movie marinates in this kind of quirk, following the Dynes home to an abandoned warehouse where the walls froth with pink-and-white foam from the bubble factory next door. Then several things happen that deepen the story and mute its eccentricities. A funny-poignant scene shows Old Dolio flinching violently from the hands of a kindly massage therapist. Later, a video of a mother bonding with her newborn leaves Old Dolio shaken and confused. Suddenly, Robert and Theresa’s behavior no longer appears loopily benign, but coldly calculating, their control of their daughter increasingly apparent.

This nagging sense of something darker crouching beneath the film’s bright images is one of the things that makes “Kajillionaire” so fascinating. Even so, the narrative doesn’t find its thematic groove until an airline-insurance swindle introduces the family to Melanie (an indispensable Gina Rodriguez), a peppy and preternaturally wise optician’s assistant. Breezing her way into their schemes, Melanie is the switch that will illuminate the Dynes’s dysfunction and their director’s surprisingly moving intent.

Bearing the brunt of July’s penchant for outlandish mannerisms and weird outfits, Wood eagerly embraces her awkward, near-feral character. It’s an intensely physical performance, requiring her to arc backward like a limbo dancer and, at one point, crawl across a parking lot on her stomach. But it’s very much acting-with-an-exclamation-point, so stylized that the character is often unreadable. This makes Rodriguez, with her wide-open face and relieving normalcy, crucial both to the plot and our investment in it: Melanie isn’t just Old Dolio’s savior, she’s our emotional interpreter.

Working with a soulfulness that slowly gains force, July hides real feelings inside surreal scenarios. In one remarkable sequence, the four invade the home of a bedridden old man, looking for valuables. Dying alone, he asks them to hang around and behave like a regular family, watching television and chatting about their day. So smoothly do Robert and Theresa comply, their ability to playact so practiced, that their very ease takes on the sheen of sociopathy; we can see why Melanie calls them monsters.

Wrapping damage and poverty in bubbles and sunshine, “Kajillionaire” is about intimacy and neglect, brainwashing and independence. Periodic earthtremors freeze and then redirect the action, acting as punctuation in Old Dolio’s growing suspicion that maybe raising her was her parents’ longest con of all.

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