KAJILLIONAIRE – Review
As if this movie year wasn’t odd enough, here’s yet another film all about a family dealing with money, but aside from the “dinero” element, they couldn’t be more different. In last week’s THE NEST, it was about how economics become a wedge between a married couple while causing chaos for their uprooted kids. With this week’s family trio there’s no big dissent (at least for the first act), because they’re a united team, operating with their own synchronized actions and often speaking in a “shorthand” code. And there’s no estates, furs, and high-profile positions. There’s really no jobs at all as these folks get by on the margins of society by hook and (certainly) crook. This is a family of grifters, scammers, con-artists (insert your own “low-end” criminal term) who occupy most of their days plotting and cheating folks out of their hard-earned moola. Ah, but their “leader”, the Papa, does have his own twisted ethics. He states his disdain for the “norms’, although, like them, he secretly dreams of becoming a KAJILLIONAIRE.
When we first meet the “family unit”, they’ve started their “workday”. While dad Robert (Richard Jenkins) and mom Theresa (Debra Winger) play the “bystander lookouts”, twenty-something daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) deftly slithers (evading those security cameras) into a neighborhood post office. Using a key, she opens up a P.O. box, reaches through (making sure none of the staff is watching), and grabs a package from the adjoining box. They open their “gift” while bending down below the “fence”eye level to avoid their landlord. But their home is pretty “unrentable”. It’s the office space next to the landlord’s small factory. At a specific time each day, a wave of pink foam oozes from the back ceiling and down the wall as the trio uses bits of tile and wood to scoop the suds into plastic waste cans. They then settle into their “bedrooms” which are tight office cubicles (they sleep on the floor). However OD (named after a lottery in winner hopes he’d put her in his will) is using the phone (a forgotten landline) for the next big ‘con”. They’ve gotten a complimentary flight to NYC from LA (perhaps a “resort share” promo), which gives her a great plan. They will fly out as a family, then, ASAP, they’ll hop back on a return flight, but as a couple and a stranger. The duo will grab all the bags so OD can file a lost luggage claim from the airline and collect a $1500 settlement. Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as she plans. On the way back home Robert and Theresa befriend the young bubbly woman sharing their three-seat row, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Later, at a nearby saloon, OD is shocked that her folks have brought Melanie in on the scam (a big “no-no” to her). Melanie seems to get a “rush’ from the petty thievery. This change threatens the socially awkward OD, who sees no need for a “new sister”. Could these bust up the “family team”?
From the film’s opening moments it becomes clear that the story’s main focus is Old Dolio, played by Wood as the antithesis of so many of the glamorous characters she portrayed in film and TV over the last couple of decades. Earlier I mentioned that OD was socially awkward, a true understatement as she keeps her gaze pointed at the ground during most of her painful verbal exchanges. Dressed in form-less tracksuits, her Crystal Gayle-length hair leaving only a sliver of face, walking with a short-step shuffle while twitching and swaying, Wood sometimes goes a tad over the top with the physical “busyness” (and vocally as she sounds like a combo of napoleon Dynamite and Spongebob’s BFF Patrick) but eventually draws us into OD’s closed-off world, which includes the acrobatic skills of Keaton, Lloyd, and other “silent clowns”. What appears to be “on the spectrum” is really an incomplete young woman, denied the most basic nurturing as she was trained to join in on the “jobs” from near-infancy. When is finally able to connect, Wood conveys almost a new being breaking out of a smothering cocoon. She’s truly taking her talents into a new level. Plus she gets great support from two polished screen vets. Jenkins, who almost stole THE SHAPE OF WATER, makes Robert a stern taskmaster, a “mastermind” who likes to disparage humanity, but really wants to lord over the masses. And he almost has a gleeful smile as he contemplates pulling off a new scheme against “the man”. He saves his real passions for his partner Theresa, played by an almost unrecognizable Winger, peering under a grey Lady Godiva wig, who dutifully limps (could that be the result of a botched scam) while improvising in each new situation thrown at her, effortlessly “bobbing and weaving” like a boxer. The real “wild card’ tossed into this unit is the effervescent Melanie played by TV vet Rodriguez as a mix of wide-eyed schoolgirl and mercenary vamp. Initially we see how cheating the airline gives her an electric charge (walking, or really skipping, on the “wild side”), but as her new “crew” takes on the lonely old folks she’s targeted, we see her panic as their prey now has a face. She pleads to Robert to “call it off”, but there’s no abort switch on their greed. She can’t control this “pack”, though she has a break-through as she learns to really emotionally connect with another person. This film’s talented main quartet is its biggest asset.
They are certainly needed to move along the whimsical, often too precious original story from Miranda July, who also directed. Sometimes the quirks feel forced. The landlord says he has “no filter”, so he cries, rather than bellows with fury when threatening Robert over the rent. Ditto with the numerous shots of the “bubble waves” in the office/home. Scenes at a parenting class may be intended to awaken OD to her poor upbringing, but they slow down the film’s pacing. Plus the behavior of some characters switches with a near whiplash impact. Robert buys a hot tub which leads to the movie’s most disturbing sequence, really earning that “R” rating (real ugliness from an engaging duo). When the story slides into its confusing final act, the parents almost disappear as they do a “family catch-up” that feels as out of place as the intensifying friendship between OD and Melanie. This connection doesn’t feel authentic but rather a hasty attempt at a sentimental final fade-out. And despite my affection for the actors, I wanted at least one of the characters brought to justice for the two nauseating “daylight” home “invasions”. The cast’s skills are almost criminal, but the meandering quirky script makes KAJILLIONAIRE an unrewarding investment. Beware of scam artists’ movies, cause they all can’t be THE STING.
2 Out of 4