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Funny money in Kajillionaire

Story of a disjointed family out to make a dodgy buck is original and clever

09 October, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire

KAJILLIONAIRE
Directed by Miranda July
Certificate: 12a
☆☆☆☆

THE conman crime heist has such well-trodden plot paths that the twists left to mine for your average Hollywood caper are few.

This is what makes Miranda July’s oddball comedy so refreshing: there are no clear villains, though our leads are certainly criminals, and their scams do not rely on well-groomed master criminals getting into casino vaults.

This is no The Sting in terms of plot complications. Instead, it is a tale of a horribly dysfunctional family and a child’s wish for parental affection.

Led by fanatical but shoddy conman father (Richard Jenkins), the trio stalk the beat-up streets of Los Angeles, trying to blag people who look like they can’t afford to be taken for the little rewards garnered, or faceless companies for which the effort expended to rip off offers small rewards in return.

Daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is used indiscriminately by her parents to eke out their daily bread.

They are certainly committed to the score – but they just aren’t that good at it.

When we join them, we learn they are looking to find $1,500 to pay their landlord, the owner of a laundry who gives them an old office space which leaks giant pink soap suds running down its wall once each day. They have to ensure they are home for 4.30pm to scoop the bubbles up with buckets, or face a washout when they get home.

Such visual asides are important to director July, who uses them as prompts to suggest the gutter-of-life this family inhabit. In one scam, the family fly to New York and back again so Old Dolio can pretend her luggage has been lost and she can claim insurance. While on the flight, the parents are joined by the naive but fast-talking Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who they take a shine to.

As Robert and mother Theresa (Debra Winger) invite her into their tight-knit circle, Old Dolio’s sense of displacement comes to the fore. She has never known a life different from making a quick and dodgy buck, but Melanie’s arrival – and her parents bringing her on board for a special heist – make her question the family dynamic.

Poor Old Dolio, with her silly name, realises what she misses is some affection. This is made worse by her attendance at a parenting class, which she is going to for someone else in return for $20. It brings home how little love there is from her mother.

Theresa and Robert are nihilistic, stalked by an end-of-the-world philosophy that they use to justify their behaviour. When small tremors regularly hit Los Angeles, Robert thinks that’s it, and when in-flight air turbulence causes passengers to be asked to fasten their seatbelts, he is sure the end is nigh.

While arresting in theme and tone, the film relies somewhat on the quirks of this disjointed family to carry its humour. How Old Dolio steals from a post office box, using acrobatic moves to evade CCTV, relies on oddness for its wit – more funny peculiar than funny ha ha. However, this just adds further to its interest.

Kajillionaire is a slow burner that offers satisfaction through its sheer originality and the clever, downplayed performances by the leads.

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