Miranda July’s ‘Kajillionaire’ is an odd but unmoving watch

Gina Rodriguez (left) and Evan Rachel Wood (right) star in Miranda July's "Kajillionaire." Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

By Anoushka Dalmia
BU News Service

Kajllionaire” is a frustrating film to watch. Imagine sitting at a chef’s table as they work– they wield the knife skillfully, put in the highest-quality ingredients, add a good amount of spice but the plate you’re served still doesn’t taste quite right. And you’re left wondering if a bit of salt could fix it or if the chef simply didn’t know what they were doing.

From writer and director Miranda July, “Kajillionaire” is a film that wants to tackle attachment and intimacy unconventionally. The aspects of life many of us take for granted– a parent’s touch, breakfast in the morning, developing our preferences– don’t come easily for everybody and Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) has never known affection.

Dolio is a 26-year-old adult, brought up by two scam artist parents as a partner in their numerous, petty and often senseless acts of thievery. The trio spends their days applying to giveaways and contests, stealing packages and collecting leaking foam out of their home, an office space attached to a soap factory. They split everything three ways but these pitiful frauds seldom lead to much.

Richard Jenkins as Robert Dyne, Debra Winger as Theresa Dyne and Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio Dyne in “Kajillionaire.” Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

This routine has little variation until Dolio suggests an airline luggage insurance deception. While carrying out this scheme, they meet a potential new mark, Melanie Whitacre (Gina Rodriguez). This average woman, tired of her cumbersome daily life, directs them to a lucrative new opportunity: robbing elderly folks she works with. Once she realizes the sinister nature of this adventure, she convinces Old Dolio to walk away with her and leave her exploitative parents behind.

An emotionally stunted woman with sparks of intelligence discovering her innate need for affection for the very first time? What a lucrative premise for any avid indie watcher. Yet, a moment’s scrutiny shatters this expectation. The pastel colors on display in wide, empty frames serve as a blank page for July to paint a portrait of a complicated family, but the otherwise skilled filmmaker doesn’t move far beyond a hasty sketch.

Appetizing elements of the film break through charmingly. Melanie agitates Old Dolio, who isn’t equipped to understand her own reaction to this beautiful woman. They are invariably but inexplicably drawn to each other– neither exhibits any individuality that might attract the other. Wood and Rodriguez shine through these lackluster characters, creating a façade of meaningfulness for their actions, evoking sympathy where none would be possible.

The score by Emile Mosseri elevates emotion with ease, luring you in. When Old Dolio avoids cameras and slinks into a post office to steal a package, the aural atmosphere is that of a high-stakes heist. Halfway into the film, the team of rag-tags wait for an older man to die, who asks them to pretend they’re a family sitting down to eat. He wants to feel like his family is around him in his final moments. As they wait to rob the helpless man, Mosseri’s gentle rhythm lends sorrowful intimacy to this bizarre, cruel game of house.

In scenes devoid of a score to guide July’s emotional exploration, the interactions between the protagonists often fall flat. Old Dolio’s entanglement with her codependent, abusive parents Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) doesn’t provoke the viewer because July refuses to question their motivations. It evokes pity for Dolio but before we start rooting for her, “Kajillionaire” interrupts us to advance its unmoving story.

The plot’s setting provides a jumping point for many larger discussions– financial hardship, oddities of everyday social practices, emotional abuse, and intimacy needs. But the film skirts around these concerns and ultimately refrains from participating in broader social conversation at all. July wants to display what she envisioned and say nothing of its origins, what it represents, or its plausibility. Has Dolio been a burden or an asset to her parents? Why have they stuck together despite a lack of love or even profit? And how are they able to carry on without detection and repercussions?

Even when Dolio confronts the parents she has been bound to, we’re not provided any answers– not from them, not from July. Perhaps this is what July intended for her viewers, that they confront the absence of reason for the actions of those around us, but we aren’t as easily hoodwinked into a happy ever after as Old Dolio is.

Apart from occasional sensory delights, “Kajillionaire” leaves you heartbroken in its inability to tug at your heart strings. If July had chosen to dig a little deeper, she might have struck oil, especially with a talented cast consisting of Jenkins, Winger, Wood and Rodriguez. But what you see is simply a rag-tag group of actors playing pretend at being a family that pretends, trapped in a boring story pretending to be profound.

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