Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire, her first in nearly a decade, is another melancholy, silver lining-punctuated comic fable on the pains of being alive. But this effort finds July in her most accessible mode yet, telling a universal story about how we transcend the ways our parents screw us up that also finds the auteur at her most optimistic. Here we follow Old Dolio (a droll and committed Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman who lives with her small-time con artist parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) that have been as clipped in their affections as they are with their scamming. Their life is led by hardline pragmatism and small-time grifting to get by – mail theft, giveaways, evading the landlord of their office space home that seeps pink foam from the walls. While their is little space for compassion in this family’s life, there is still plenty of room for Julyisms.
Old Dolio’s awareness of her emotional needs is just beginning to awaken as the family meets the extroverted and bored Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Quickly, Melanie discovers their act and offers a quick scam routine to make them all a chunk of cash. As the unlikely foursome robs Melanie’s elderly clients (and Melanie becomes more and more of a potential romantic option for Old Dolio), their connection devolves into a series of roleplaying efforts that illuminate the depth of Old Dolio’s stunted emotional growth, opening a sinkhole in the young woman that her parents are incapable of filling. For Kajillionaire, life is an extended roleplay that we simply choose to buy into.
Easy acceptance is one of the film’s unfortunate demands on its audience. Melanie stays unreconciled throughout as the film’s key problem; she’s a plausability vacuum, inexplicably submitting herself to the grifts of strangers and entirely undeveloped beyond an overbearing, but phone-bound mother. The films asks us to just go with not only its heightened reality but also its oversights; its warm tone convinces us, but its porousness keeps it from sinking to a deeper emotional level.
Fairness perhaps dictate that you view the film’s brand of comedy through the lens of its maker. While on the surface, Kajillionaire appears to be the grating type of demonstratively odd melancoholic comedy that mistakes personality for uniqueness like Little Miss Sunshine or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. But those familiar with July’s previous work will recognize traits that are more her own singular balance of darkness and grace, all more organically drawn than those blander examples of indie idiosyncratic performance. Instead, this common ground is merely accidental, a byproduct of July attempting to push her sensibilities into more conventional palettes. The fatalism of The Future and the sexual frankness of Me and You and Everyone We Know still remain, as do their natural, yet seemingly incongruous warmth and fairytale quality. Here July seems self-aware of her work’s most distancing behaviors (perhaps too much so for this viewer) and aims to work against them by leaning into her sweeter impulses. Kajillionaire isn’t another quirky eyeroll, it’s simply July flirting with the mainstream. As much as she can, at least.
With precisely textured performances from the ensemble, especially Wood in her complexly droned delivery, the film satisfies with its emotional intelligence with which it explores its heightened reality. Though its comedic framework strays is sometimes labored, Kajillionaire is a delicate reflection on child rearing and how we begin to develop past the backwards behaviors that are hardwired into us by our parents. If some audacity is lost in the softening of July’s typically sharp edges, or credibility is strained in its logic, the film is still precise in how it examines slippery emotional terrain.