On September 2nd 2020, E. Alex Jung’s deep-dive article on filmmaker Miranda July hit Vulture (with deserved acclaim). The interview is the result of 15 weeks of zoom conversations, with July herself praising Jung on Twitter for his ability to be detailed yet open. As more people read it, the factoid that came to prominence the most was a scatological tale involving July’s ex, director Miguel Arteta.
Two days later, Charlie Kaufman’s feature I’m Thinking of Ending Things was released on Netflix with praise from Twitter circles. An accurately composed, yet misanthropic piece that revels in the decay of memory and missed connections.
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July’s new film Kajillionaire also indulges in intimate contact, dipped in the offbeat style that only someone like July can bring. Why bring up Kaufman’s film? Because both Kajillionaire and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are off kilter in their design. Both are niche in their approach to relationships and audiences. And both feature excellent performances from their crimson-headed leads. But while Kaufman is lauded for his rather dour, pessimistic tale, July’s feature, through its unorthodox storytelling, sees people as something to value. It is nice to feel we do not need to go through crap first to see that.
Kajillionaire gives us a brilliant central performance from Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the oddly named Old Dolio. Inhabiting a low-rent office apartment neighbouring a bubble factory, Old Dolio lives with her criminal parents. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) have spent 26 years teaching their child the art of the grift. They know every way to make a stolen buck go further. Even though they’re not particularly great at the execution. After being allowed to set up one of their most elaborate scams, the trio encounters a talkative Latina named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who seems to want in on their scams through curiosity more than anything else. Melanie’s sociability seems to jar the works of the family who suddenly must rediscover what family means to them.
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Despite its quirks, Kajillionaire is never too jarring in terms of its themes. Much like July’s first film, Me, You and Everyone We Know, Kajillionaire takes an eccentric approach to human connection, looking at where we find it and, particularly in this modern era, asks the question of whether family is the people joined by blood or the people you choose. On paper, a film telling a story like this could have easily been pre-packaged in a way that could disappear in the confounding sprawl of online streaming. However, July’s dedication to oddball whimsy makes the whole affair appealing in her gentle way. Do two of the characters need to have such odd vocal traits? Probably not. Do the stilted pauses create an irregular rhythm to the film that some audience members will not be used to? Yep. Also, watch how the family bend and twist to avoid being seen by cameras and folk. It is all very calculated in its goofiness.
But within all the film’s eccentricity lies a young woman struggling to understand and find a connection. An amusing early massage scam highlights Old Dolio’s ignorance of any real kind of warmth. A wander around a supermarket has Dolio wondering why no one is acting as sketchy as she is or watching for the cameras. Her relationship with Melanie builds from amusing awkwardness into something far more substantial. The way the film delivers its narrative will certainly jar with some viewers. Its depiction of those on the fringes of society is more fantastic than realistic. Those walking into this film looking for more typical gags could be sorely disappointed. This is not that film.
What Kajillionaire does have is a daring performance by Evan Rachel Wood. Daring in the sense that Wood is so willing to engage with July’s quirks and once again show herself as an actress with range, who is more than willing to try something different. Balancing her unawareness of the world around her with hard-headedness and curiosity, watching Wood’s Old Dolio come to realise how her grifter lifestyle may hold all the contentment that has been fed to her is quietly affecting. Gina Rodriguez is the perfect foil as the high-energy tour guide to this new world. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger are solid as parents who are hard to love.
But it is that aspect which makes Kajillionaire watchable. Asking questions about connectivity amid a social landscape of divisive online culture wars and generational discord. There is something to be said about July’s subversion of the American family dream. One that barely survives within itself and demands authenticity through scam jobs. That this family may find something more beneficial via a Latina woman is funny – at least to this writer. What Kajillionaire delivers is a sense of optimism at a point where some have felt that their own has gone missing. It’s where Kaufman’s film and July’s differ. One just seems to like the sound of their voice. The other simply wishes to sing.
Kajillionaire is out in cinemas from 9th October.
Set The Tape staff are not yet venturing out to the cinema, and are currently reviewing solely from digital screenings or physical media. If you are attending the cinema, please respect social distancing, practice good hygiene, and wear a mask.