Combustible Celluloid
With: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Mark Ivanir, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Diana Maria Riva, Rachel Redleaf
Written by: Miranda July
Directed by: Miranda July
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual references/language
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/25/2020

Kajillionaire (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Con Stardust

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The third feature written and directed by Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future), Kajillionaire does not feature a role for that delightful curly-haired performance artist. Instead, Evan Rachel Wood effectively steps in to fill the lead role.

Wood plays "Old Dolio" — a strange name that is explained, hilariously, late in the film — the daughter of two small-time thieves and con artists, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger).

Clad in bulky clothes (with room for a helpful Catholic schoolgirl outfit), and with hair that looks like it has never seen a pair of scissors, Old Dolio and her parents spend each day going through a litany of cons, such as stealing mail or trying to return items to stores, to come up with their measly rent.

Their living space, an old office, suffers from a daily spewing of some kind of thick foam from upstairs, which rolls down the walls and must be scraped up and disposed of.

One day, Old Dolio accepts payment from a woman to attend a pregnancy class; there, she becomes obsessed with the idea of mother-child bonding, which she feels she never had.

In one great scene, Old Dolio tries to get a refund for a massage coupon, but must instead take the massage. The masseuse (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, from Dolemite Is My Name) finds she must keep her hands just above Old Dolio's rigid back; anything else is "too much pressure."

Then, the family wins one of the many contests they regularly enter, and prepare for a flight to New York. Old Dolio cooks up a plan to "lose" her luggage and collect enough insurance money to pay their back rent.

On the plane, they meet the sensuous, chatty Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is fascinated by the odd family and befriends them.

Melanie's arrival, plus Old Dolio's crisis of conscience, and the coming of "the Big One," a Los Angeles earthquake that will end everything, upsets the old family dynamic in strange, funny, and touching new ways.

As with July's other films, Kajillionaire is almost a romantic comedy, only slightly subverted. The romance is real, but the comedy is very nearly surreal, so strange that it occasionally borders on the queasy.

One key scene takes place in a gas station restroom with a broken light; the voices in the darkness begin to drift as if floating in space.

The film is set in what seems to be the real world — a hazy, nondescript, late-afternoon Los Angeles — and although nothing unrealistic happens, it still moves with a more subconscious, impulse-driven energy than strict logic.

For example, in one scene, the family suddenly decides to buy a hot tub, when no hot tub is ever mentioned before, and, after its purpose is fulfilled, is never seen again.

But the more time one spends in July's world, the more weirdly charming it becomes. Images like the rolling foam, or the way the family walks bent over to avoid being seen over a fence by their emotional landlord, are almost Buster Keaton-like.

In that regard, Kajillionaire, even if it works in a roundabout way, finally does have a genuine sweetness that sends you out in a wealth of smiles.

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