Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 27, 2020 7:34 am 
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In a trio of low-energy grifters, a late glimmer of hope

For admirers of Miranda July's oddball movies, this third one's the weirdest yet, and there are those who say it's her best, and even perhaps the one most healthily self-questioning of her own excessive appetite for whimsy. We immediately enter a bright sunny Los Angeles world of grim absurdity. A family of three, Theresa (Debra Winger), Robert ((Richard Jenkins) and their 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) (kooky name, whose far-fetched explanation comes later), who make up a team of ineffective and unfunny but curiously fascinating grifters.

Fascinating at first, at least: the early parts of Kajillionaire (arresting name: not altogether relevant) keep us absorbed figuring out what makes this trio tick and how they function. Later on, that becomes less crucial and less interesting, but the dynamic among them, especially between the daughter and the two parents, still holds our interest. The already uneasy but intense union falls apart during the course of the picture, but a redeeming if tentative emotional bond develops in its place, flowering right at the end.

The trio's scams are almost more conceits than actual money-raisers. A "kajilionaire" is what Robert (Jenkins) thinks everybody wants to be: they're seemingly content with wooden nickels. Number one scam is for the nimbler daughter, Old Dolio, to twist and jump her way into a small post office, her contortions designed to elude the surveillance cameras - one of her skills (another is forging signatures, which is how she learned to write). She uses a key to get into various post office mailboxes and, contorting further, reach around into adjoining ones to grab contents. This random process would seem one that would never work, but they are content with whatever goods they come on, and use them to approach the addressees, getting rewards for "lost" property found, or exploiting other possibilities.

They live a precarious existence, so they must have cheap lodgings, of course strange ones, which are actually office spaces in a bubble factory, where the bubbles escape through a wall once every day. Their arrangement with the complicit caretaker, an emotionally fragile man who weeps copiously when crossed, is to clean up this bubble overflow and dump it and wipe off the wall. But they still have to pay him $500 a month, and they're three months overdue.

I mentioned the family dynamic. Both Teresa and Robert have a grim outlook on life. There are periodic earthquake tremors throughout the action, and each time they think it's the "Big One." Teresa and Old Dolio are linked by long, flowing hair and unattractive clothes. The parents treat Old Dolio as an equal, which means without kindness or parenting.

This wouldn't be much to go on for the length of a feature film but action finally comes when Old Dolio wins a free air trip to New York for three, and conceives a scam to make up the overdue rent. They will go to New York, come right back, and she will "lose" her baggage, which with travel insurance will entitle her to a $1,500 imbursement.

And on the plane, luckily for us, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a lively, busty young Latina woman who works as a suburban L.A. optomitrist's assistant and apparently, is eager to enter the grifting game. She has some ideas, like invading the homes of old people she makes deliveries to, and stealing their stuff. Melanie has a nice mother, for a change, often on the phone from somewhere, who's generous and curious with her. There's a hint that all's not right with this connection either, but it's closer to human. Teresa and Robert seem to warm to Melanie, and welcome her into a scam.

Old Dolio's already ultra-minimal thread of parental support seems direly threatened; and yet, there is also Melanie's free-flowing warmth and good humor, which moves in a kindly way, and more, toward Old Dolio. Melanie's presence causes Old Dolio to question the eccentric parenting she has received throughout her life but also to be jealous, since Melanie becomes competition. And then comes the "Big One," or what Teresa, Robert and Old Dolio think is that, which seems to have little effect on the outside world of Los Angeles, but within the grifter trio, changes everything.

There are memorable scenes, often with emotional tension, embarrassment, or sorrow underlined by pulsing, slightly invasive music, or the playing of Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely," a song as lugubrious as this film. It is typical for Miranda July's writing to hover on the edge between the lugubrious and the terminally eccentric. July certainly sounds a distinctive note with these pathetic, far-fetched Angelinos, but I think that the film would have been more fun and more enlightening if July had managed to conceive of more active and interesting scams, as in a favorite of mine, Stephen Frears' 1990 The Grifters, where the competing trio is played by Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Benning, and there's a wealth of energy and imagination throughout, which is what real grifters, dare I presume, usually have. See it!

Kajillionaire, 104 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, playing at others including Deauville, Zurich, Hamburg, London and Ghent. It's now available on several online platforms including YouTube and Amazon Prime. Metascore: 78%.

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