Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), along with their grown daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) are a "team of con artists" living on the fringes of society. The parents have raised their daughter to follow in their footsteps. This sounds like it could be the basis for an intense drama or even thriller. It could also be the basis for a wacky comedy or a family comedy or a dark comedy.
Set your expectations elsewhere. KAJILLIONAIRE is its own very unique, strange drama/comedy hybrid. I put "team of con artists" in quotations because these guys are TERRIBLE at what they do. They put A LOT of energy into their schemes yet things go wrong or the amount of return they expect is way above reality. They live on the fringes of society (in fact, they live in a crumbling office suite that is located next to a bubble factory , a bubble factory] and each day they must get back to their home/office at the same time in order to clear away the bubbles that leak through the wall). They barely have enough money for food. Your first thought after spending 10 minutes with them is "if they just put this energy into a real job, they'd be fine." But the parents also are paranoid: the government is watching them, there are secret rays beaming at us through cell phones, etc. etc. These guys are nuts (I realize that's a very uncharitable and non-PC characterization, but believe me, watching the movie, you will have the same reaction.) And their adult child has been raised like this. Mistrusting. Living on the edge of the law. And without hugs and affection either. She's emotionally stunted, and even moves through the world with weird posture. She doesn't fit in. You can sense she's aware that she's in an unworkable and abnormal situation, but has no sense of a way out.
Into this strange, fringe family comes Melanie (Gina Rodriquez), a vibrant, flashy, energetic but also troubled young lady who develops a fascination with the family and wants to join in on their con artist ways. She's a natural at the work, but she's also living on a different wavelength. Flashy when they are quiet. Ballsy when they are cowardly. And affectionate. At first, it's the parents that are entertained by her (and Old Dolio is alarmed by her). Yet, these relationships are forced to develop in new ways because of Melanie's intrusion.
The PLOT of the film is almost beside the point. It's the relationships that matter. Lots of things happen in the movie, but there's never a strong sense of a beginning, middle and end. And this gives the film a highly rambling quality, which coupled with these very strange people, makes for a tough movie viewing experience. We're not quite sure how our loyalties should lie (or if we should even forge any). Writer/director Miranda July has made the quirkiest movie I've seen in a long time. Sometimes its a playful quirkiness that can make for a bit of fun. Sometimes it feels quirky just for the sake of it, and this deadens the pace of the film at times. The tone of the movie is very challenging; a tightrope walk. July and her cast aren't always 100% successful in staying on the rope.
Yet the movie offers plenty of rewards for the patient viewer. When Melanie hits the scene, the carefully constructed strangeness of the central family is blown apart and the film is nearly completely unpredictable at this point. You have the chance to really DISCOVER what happens next, not just sit there and expect the events to unfold in a certain way. These characters are so odd it is almost impossible to guess what they will think, say or do next. And that almost complete uncertainty is its own reward. And the performances are stellar too. Jenkins and Winger are old pros and are a hoot to watch. Rodriquez (who brought so much optimistic energy to Jane The Virgin) explodes on the screen...she was a perfect casting choice. Bubbly and upbeat is SO different than what the others are, it is just fun to see how she causes ripples upon ripples. And Evan Rachel Wood is fascinating. Her voice and mannerisms are unique, and getting to watch her emotionally stunted character at least think about perhaps blossoming just a little is really the true joy of this film. The movie hinges on her ability to pull off the job of taking a very strange character and making her believable. She sticks the landing 99%; and the end of the movie is a quiet but powerful treat.
This is a challenging movie. Slow paced (especially the first 30 minutes). Weird. Characters we don't immediately recognize or empathize with. Sounds like a recipe for a poor evening of movie-watching. But in the end, I was oddly exhilarated. The payoff was more emotional than I expected; July planted the seeds of empathy and we didn't quite know it until suddenly they sprouted. A nice surprise!
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