Crime barely pays in Miranda July's darkly whimsical grifter tale Kajillionaire: Review
Kajillionaire begins with a heist, though to call it that is probably an insult to larceny. The spoils — a small stuffed panda, an unusable money order, a men's necktie — might pull a few charitable dollars at a stoop sale. But Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) aren't even really looking to be thousandaires; they just, as Robert puts it virtuously, "prefer to skim."
How this pair of aging L.A. grifters have forged their life philosophy, and bent their grown daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to fit the shape of it, forms the thrust of Miranda July's latest (in theaters Sept. 25) — about as winsome a portrait of felonious parenting as any film could hope to be.
Cracked whimsicality, of course, is pretty much July's brand; a tendency to turn and face the strange with a kind of tender, searching curiosity, and then press gently on the parts that bruise. Fifteen years on from her breakout debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know (and nearly a decade since its follow-up, The Future), she is still a sort of wobbly arbiter of hope, though she once again sets her characters down in a place that doesn't particularly seem to promise it: a dusty, sun-drabbed Los Angeles of bus stops and post offices and pawn shops.
Even among the indifferent and the down-and-out, Woods' improbably named Old Dolio (that too will be explained, eventually) stands out as a misfit: odd-mannered, gravel-voiced, her hair falling in two lank sheets down the oversize tracksuits she wears like a invisibility cloak around her body. That doesn't stop Robert and Theresa from making her the default front for the family's scams; she's nearly always the one to bluff her way up to the mail counter or massage studio or wherever their latest micro-hustle lies.
It's also her idea to make up the back rent owed on their barely legal living space by pulling off a bigger, more ambitious job. Enter Melanie (Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez), a "civilian" bystander just bored and friendly enough to be intrigued. A blithe sunbeam poured into Forever 21 spandex, she's everything the Dynes aren't: talky, affectionate, endlessly curious. As she burrows her way in, their cloistered world begins to crack open, and so does the movie's crooked little heart — sometimes to its own too-precious detriment, but with no small amount of charm.
Jenkins and a nearly unrecognizable Winger make the most of their small monsters, peeling back layers of callousness and calculation to hint at the messier motivations underneath. Woods' tortured Dolio sometimes skirts silliness (that voice!), but she plays her odd bird for more than absurd comedy — a girl so long subsumed by her parents' ideas of the world that she may not even know how to recognize her own. It's Rodriguez, though, who brings the surge of oxygen that breathes July's offbeat storytelling to life: bleak and funny and still, somehow, flickering with hope. B+