Kajillionaire, the oddly charming new movie by Miranda July, is about a family trapped in a cycle of bad plans. There’s the curiously named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her parents, Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins), who named their daughter for a homeless man who won the lottery but used up all the money before he could write the girl into his will.
Which is the kind of arbitrary circumstance — a tremor of luck that ends as quickly and unexpectedly as it began — that seems to define this family. When we meet them, they’re living in an unused office space, nestling themselves between cubicle walls when they sleep at night. The internet works, which is nice, but they’re behind on rent, and the funds they do come up with are, shall we say, untraditional: a money order, a random $20 bill, someone’s old but nice-ish tie. They got the place at a discount, though even this proves to be a caveat in action: one side of their home borders a bubble factory, and every week, they arrive home to pink suds glopping down the wall. It’s like living in a soap sponge with ethernet.
They’re about to get evicted from the bubble-verse, however — an especially urgent predicament for people who live, not even from check to check, but from low-grade to lower-grade hustle. Old Dolio and her parents are petty crooks, stealing mail, running low-end schemes on other vulnerable, lonely people, and somehow getting away with it. You sense they’ve lived this way for some time. You also sense that Dolio — who in another version of this movie, the one that might have come out 15 years ago, would be a plucky but over-it teenager — wants out.
It’s a strange situation that befalls strange people, which is not unusual for July. Nor is it unusual for this director to make a film about people driven along through life by their own curious ambitions, wants and needs that, for all the ways they feel normal — the desire to make art, to adopt a cat, to be able to afford one’s rent — play out in her films with an almost painful individuality. July’s movies are comedies, in a sense. But usually they are about people who cannot seem to live, think, or feel the way “normal” people do those things, whose desires for normal lives are subverted by the quirks of who they are. This is comedy wed not just to melancholy but to a deep sense, maybe fear, of failure.
But failure on whose terms? Old Dolio is the heroine of the movie. But it’s her father Robert — a classic shambly role for Jenkins — who puts the idea plainly: “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” he says. “That’s the dream. That’s how they get you hooked. Hooked on sugar, hooked on caffeine — ha-ha-ha, cry-cry-cry!” No 401K, no buying into the false promise of capital, no playing along. He’d rather skim, he says. Robert is the kind of self-selected outcast likely to remind you that having a cell phone is like carrying a piece of CIA technology in your pocket.
He doesn’t live up to those ideals as neatly as he’d expect, of course; again, failure abounds in Miranda July’s world, even if it’s a failure to be as abnormal or free from the status quo as a person thinks he is. For some reason — the same reason? — on a flight back from New York, which is itself part of the family’s plan to get that rent money, entrusts the details of an ongoing scheme to his seatmate, Melanie (Gina Rodriquez). No security clearance needed; he asks if she’s trustworthy, she says yes, and he ropes her in.
Which is when the movie changes, somewhat: a talkative, friendly, regular-shmegular person enters into the midst of this odd crew and sparks new tensions, new recognitions. Kajillionaire feels in some ways like a relic, harkening back to the recent past of indie quirk but dressing it up in the pain of overgrown kidulthood. The difference between July’s work and those other movies is that the quirks aren’t a mere matter of personality or window dressing, but evidence of a way of being in the world that, to the majority, isn’t quite right. Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio — one of her best performances to date — comes off, in her track suits and with her long hair, like a person who wants to disappear behind a curtain and squeeze her body in so tight that maybe, if she doesn’t move, you won’t notice her. Her cheeks are gaunt; her desires are, at first glance, straightforward.
But she deepens. Intriguingly, they all do. Often all it takes is an aside: a mother’s remark to her daughter about her ability to feel, a father revealing just what kind of man he is, despite all the trappings of paranoid ambivalence weighing him down. Watching Old Dolio navigate the odd terrain of this movie is in many ways a thrill. Kajillionaire doesn’t always stand head and shoulders about the manic-quirk pack of its genre; July sometimes manufactures means of self-realization that feel forced for a filmmaker whose real knack is for taking old saws and rendering them unexpectedly delightful or free. I watch her films certain that we live on the same planet and equally prepared to see it through fresh eyes.
Kajillionaire does not, end to end, satisfy this as well as some of July’s earlier work. But there are sequences and incidents here that surprised me. One, involving yet another scheme — there’s a dying man involved, and an eerie moment in which everyone plays house to his benefit — that proved shocking because, though a number of other directors can (and have) come up with scenes like this, few push through to its awkward uncertainties this confidently. Scenes like this can make the skin tingle. Kajillionaire just doesn’t have enough of them.