'Kajillionaire': Fantastic & Frustrating Event-Horizon Miranda July [Sundance]

“They’re my parents,” says Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) in a flat, affectless rasp, blinking out incredulously from behind the barely-parted drapes of her mousy, waist-length hair. “In what sense?” shoots back Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) with a directness that is almost derisive. Then, more affectionately, softer: “In what sense are they your parents?” In any other world, such a question would be absurd, unanswerable. But the parallel-universe LA of Miranda July‘s “Kajillionaire” is itself so absurd that it feels like the most astute and vital query anyone could put to this staggeringly lonely misfit, marooned on the fringes of society and swimming in a tracksuit so shapelessly oversized you could fit six more of her in it. Or maybe it’s just that by the time this exchange rolls around— after petty post-office thefts, abortive hot-tub seductions, earthquakes that are believed to electrically charge even the most inert of objects and lava-like waves of pink-stained foam that roll apocalyptically down the inner walls of an abandoned office space and have to be cleared away several times a day in a “three-man job” — we’ve been submerged in the impossibly peculiar waters of July’s imagination so long we’ve developed gills. 

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Like Charlie Kaufman given a dose of wonky sweetness to leaven the existential despair at the impossibility of human connection, July has always had a talent for recalibrating recognisable reality according to her own defiantly unconventional vision. And with her two previous features, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and “The Future” she had already neatly cleaved the audience into those who find her inspired, audacious and gleefully original, and those who find her trying, mannered and insufferably pretentious (both factions get a mandatory single-use “quirky” for free). But even for card-carrying, app-subscribing, novel-reading members of the pro-July Group A (hi there!), “Kajillionaire” is a challenge: it’s a film that requires you to indulge its patience-testing pace, monotonous dialogue delivery and frustrating anti-characterization for a very long time before you earn the right to unwrap the borderline transcendent gift of its absolutely beautiful ending. 

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Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, both on unusually misanthropic form) are, in whatever sense, Old Dolio’s parents. A pair of low-grade scam artists (though there’s not much artistry on display) they live by “skimming,” which sets them apart from the rest of society, all of whom, according to Robert, are afflicted with the pointless desire to be “kajillionaires.” In a perversely sunny, pastel-colored LA, shot in Sebastian Winterø’s sprightly photography and melodically accompanied by Emile Mosseri‘s delightful score, they’ve brought up Old Dolio as less a beloved daughter than a useful, fully brainwashed adjunct to their petty crime gang. Even her ridiculous name is the result of an unsuccessful extortion attempt, as Old Dolio explains in a sudden monologue too hilarious to spoil here.

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But two things happen that cause Old Dolio to question her dissociated, deadpan existence. First, a pregnant stranger offers her $20 to attend a mandatory prenatal class in her place, where she learns about a mother-baby bond entirely alien to her relationship with Theresa (who looks at her like she’s faintly mad when Old Dolio suggests a “mother-daughter getaway”). And second, in the course of another scam, the Dynes meet the outgoing but also obscurely broken Melanie (Rodriguez, somehow the most comfortable presence despite being the least July-ish character) who quickly knits herself into the family’s odd dynamic. 

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At first, the attractive Melanie’s tight clothes, peppy attitude and effortless popularity with her emotionally withholding Mom and Dad incur Old Dolio’s jealousy. “You’re hooked on life,” she tells Melanie scornfully, as if life is a poor choice of addiction “And your brain is in your tits.” But after working a few boneheaded scams with her— including one funny, touching scenario that hints at the film “Kajillionaire” could do with being more often, in which the Dynes plus Melanie play-act as a noisy, happy family to comfort their mark, who is a man dying alone in his bedroom— their relationship changes, and Melanie comes to represent the possibility of rebirth. After all the episodic plot’s convolutions and the affectation-laden side characters — the Dynes’ hoarse-voiced landlord who works at a bubble factory (?) and cannot stop crying is a case in point of a quirk too far— the film really get its feet under itself when it decides it’s simply a story about how love, and the acceptance of its limitations, can set you free.

July also starred in both her previous films, and it’s hard not to miss her singular presence in “Kajillionaire.” As good as Wood is, especially when she’s allowed to emerge from behind the slouchy styling that swaddles her in a protective cocoon of drabness, it feels like she’s playing the role that July herself, at a younger age, would have simply been. It’s an authenticity of which this wildly uneven movie could use a bit more, to offset its contrivances and carry us through its longueurs. As it is, as an offbeat investigation into parenting as maybe the longest con of them all, that lands on a strangely normcore yet somehow expansive conquering-love conclusion, “Kajillionaire” can feel a little like a present that you can’t decide if you’ll treasure forever, or return to the store for a full cash refund. And so you dither by the register, gift receipt in hand, while the films plays through its maddening, and finally exhilarating rhythm of interesting-aggravating-hilarious-I’m done with this-oh wait it’s maybe the greatest thing ever. [B]

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