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Review: A family of con artists rings beautifully true in Miranda July’s comedy ‘Kajillionaire’

Evan Rachel Wood stars in the movie "Kajillionaire."
(Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

In Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire,” the city of Los Angeles is beset early and often by earthquakes — sharp, fleeting tremors that rattle sidewalks, offices and, most memorably, a gas-station bathroom. Coming from an L.A.-based artist known for her unshackled imagination, this might seem like a rare concession to realism, even topicality. But July’s quakes, no less than anything else in her work, defy easy classification. Are they warnings of “the big one” on the horizon? Or are they actually emotional shifts disguised as tectonic ones — external manifestations of the personal epiphany that is about to upend Old Dolio’s life?

It can’t be upended fast enough. Old Dolio Dyne, played by a remarkable Evan Rachel Wood, is a gloomy young woman with Cousin Itt’s hair, Eeyore’s soul and a lumpy green tracksuit that she wears constantly, even though it looks too big and too warm for the Southern California sunshine. The story behind her name is both too sad and too funny to give away here, but it can be traced, unsurprisingly, back to her parents, who have the comparatively normal monikers of Robert and Theresa Dyne (and are played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

Robert and Theresa are small-time scam artists who, for 26 years, have treated their daughter less as a child than an accessory, a compulsory participant in their ridiculous money-making schemes. They have raised her, if that’s the word, with a strict sense of fairness (everything gets split three ways), a strong work ethic (because scamming is hard work) and a casual but chilling denial of physical and emotional affection.

There’s a disquieting idea at play here: What if family itself is a kind of scam, a long and elaborate con foisted by parents upon their unsuspecting children? Robert and Theresa are a pretty pathetic couple of grifters; their coupon-clipping hustles are amateurish, their payouts measly. But when it comes to pulling the wool over their daughter’s eyes, they’re masters.

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Old Dolio does their dirty work without complaint, whether she’s nimbly lifting packages from a post office box or trying to redeem gift certificates for cash. Not for a moment does she appear to have questioned the parameters of her absurd existence, which lately means squatting with her parents in a cubicle-strewn office space whose walls, being next door to something called a “bubble factory,” are constantly oozing waves of pink foam.

Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger in the movie "Kajillionaire."
(Matt Kennedy/Sundance Institute)

The recurring image of the Dynes calmly dumping out bucket after bucket of rose-colored bubbles makes for a beautifully deadpan sight gag. It’s also a pretty apt metaphor for the task of describing what happens in a Miranda July movie; one could amass paragraphs of eccentric plot summary, as I have already, without quite pinpointing both the strangeness and the surpassing delicacy of her sensibility. The everyday surrealism that suffuses her work isn’t just a function of oddball plot turns and double-take-worthy dialogue, though both are certainly in evidence. It’s more a matter of willed perspective: Bit by bit, line by line, she nudges you onto her characters’ wavelength, navigating their world with matter-of-fact drollery and tethering even her weirdest flights of fancy to clear, accessible emotions.

“Kajillionaire” is her third feature in 15 years, which from another filmmaker might be taken as a sign of indolence. (July is, among other things, an author, an actor, a sculptor and a multimedia performance artist.) Her first feature, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005), was about the universal struggle for human connection; her 2011 follow-up, “The Future,” confronted the deep-seated fears of impending parenthood.

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“Kajillionaire,” though appreciably larger in budget, scale and ambition, feels like a logical continuation of those two thematic strands even as it playfully braids them together. What happens when parents don’t act like parents, when children are forced to grow up too fast and a meaningful connection never materializes? It’s a question that arises naturally from July’s comedies of stunted development, all of them set in that blurry zone — you could call it Los Angeles — where childhood and adulthood sometimes become indistinguishable.

One of the most striking images in “Kajillionaire” is of an infant at its mother’s bare breast, seen in an old video clip that hits Old Dolio with unexpected force. She’s earning a few bucks by attending a woman’s prenatal class, and it’s the first time she’s glimpsed a form of parent-child bonding that isn’t strictly transactional. When she begins to question her own parents’ treatment of her, they respond with a curious defense (given their line of work) of their integrity. To treat her as a child, they argue — Robert with good-natured sheepishness, Theresa with a sudden outpouring of scorn — would have been a betrayal of who they are and a sugar-coated denial of the tough, painful world they inhabit.

And so it’s only natural that Old Dolio feels a twinge of jealousy when her parents randomly befriend a stranger, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), in one of the few moments when you can feel the strain of shifting narrative gears. Although roughly the same age as Old Dolio, Melanie turns out to be her temperamental opposite: charming, gregarious, eager to talk about herself and find out more about her new acquaintances. Melanie, it turns out, has a dissembling streak of her own (plus a fondness for heist movies), and before long she’s happily joining the Dynes in their harebrained schemes and even concocting a few of her own. This paves the way for a remarkable sequence in which the four of them must enter the home of a grievously ill man and pretend to be an ordinary, conventionally happy family. It’s a setup that naturally engages July’s career-long fascination with improvisation and role play, even as it brilliantly exposes the gap between the roles we idealize and the ones we’re often stuck with.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in the movie "Kajillionaire."
(Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)
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One of the more intriguing questions is what role Melanie herself will play — not just with regard to Old Dolio, whose envy soon gives way to tentative admiration and attraction, but also within the movie itself. It would be hard to overstate the wit and warmth of Rodriguez’s performance, which injects a breath of fresh air — and a bracing dose of emotional normalcy — into a story predicated on affectless, antisocial behavior. But it would also be hard to overlook Melanie’s flirtation with a troubling cinematic trope: the lively, outspoken person of color who stands in sharp contrast with a white protagonist, whom she exists mainly to teach, improve and edify.

The logical counterargument is the same one often wielded by July’s defenders against the complaint that her films are insufferably twee or precious: She’s well aware of the source of your objections, thanks, and has deliberately placed it front and center — brazenly, perhaps, but not uncritically. Melanie’s tight, revealing attire (snarkily pointed out by Old Dolio) and obvious attractiveness add a risky, volatile dimension to the group dynamics, even as she actively rejects the temptation, on the part of the characters or the audience, to objectify her. The “sexy Latina” stereotype so prevalent in movies and TV shows is deliberately engaged, then, with the purpose of interrogating and even dismantling it, though here I think the movie’s admirable intention outstrips its wobbly execution.

Melanie, though far more than a mere plot device, is nonetheless subsidiary in function; there are hints and gestures at her inner life, but this is ultimately Old Dolio’s story. At times, Wood seems to be doing her own singular riff on the kind of protagonist July played in her first two features: the awkward, unlikely heroine gradually confronting her own deep need for love. But her techniques are entirely her own, among them a voice that seems to have dropped several registers, an endlessly expressive perma-frown and a physical elasticity — she’d make a killer limbo player — that occasions the single funniest, most expressive moment of visual slapstick I’ve seen in a movie this year. It’s also, no less than those earthquakes, a warning of changes to come: Her days of bending over backward for anyone are numbered.

‘Kajillionaire’

Rated: R, for some sexual references/language

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 25 at the Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair; Rubidoux Drive-in, Riverside; also in general release where theaters are open; available Oct. 16 on VOD platforms.

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