The family that cons together…
It isn’t often that I’ll sign up to review a film just because a certain actor or actress is in it. But as an admirer of Debra Winger, I have to admit that indeed was definitely the case with Kajillionaire. The actress remains one of the most fascinating of her generation and her choices in recent years, though far too sporadic, show her at her best. Her turns in Rachel Getting Married, In Treatment and The Lovers show a seasoned pro with a still-present hunger for her craft. Winger expectedly doesn’t disappoint in Kajillionaire as she delivers another characterization that shows her continuously expansive range and watchability. What did manage to take me by surprise however, was the film as a whole and it’s illustration of damaged people. Hilarious and devastating, Kajillionaire is the story of one of the most problematic families ever shown on the screen and the fascinating figure at its center.
The central figure of Kajillionaire is Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood); a young woman in her 20s who has spent most of her life following her small time con artist parents name Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Winger) around while learning to hustle, cheat and steal just like them. The result has left Old Dolio emotionally stunted and socially awkward well into adulthood. Eventually the trio meets the energetic Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is so taken by the unconventional family, she decides to join the team causing Old Dolio to look at life in a different way.
The nature of writer/director Miranda July’s screenplay provides so much of what makes Kajillionaire such a find. The architecture of the film may seem straightforward, but somewhere during the second act, you realize there are a multitude of layers to be explored. Watching Old Dolio and her parents for the entire film would have been satisfying enough from a curio standpoint, but the introduction of Melanie brings forward a new energy and dynamic that guides the film and our characters into places we never saw them venturing. Each con in the script is so methodically written and executed, while every character in his or her own way is written as someone who has had to adjust to the fact that the world simply doesn’t see them. July offers up a few small speech scenes (all of which are brilliant), but Kajillionaire is more content to see its characters try to navigate the world in their own unorthodox ways while Old Dolio begins to genuinely see the outside world for the very first time. So captivating is all of this that it hardly matters that the end of Kajillionaire doesn’t wrap things up in a neat package. What it chooses to do instead is cling to the sense of hope in the final scene and not let go.
At the heart of Kajillionaire lies one of the cookiest, and decidedly dangerous, family portraits ever seen. Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa are a family in ways beyond blood. The trio look out for each other and there is a bond that exists between them. But their ability to relate to one another ends with their cons, which include everything from taking college exams for money, to filing false claims of lost luggage. When Melanie enters the picture, Robert and Theresa seem to take to her rather quickly, leaving Old Dolio feeling jealous, especially when her mother starts to display maternal feelings towards her. “You’ve never called me hon,” Old Dolio flatly states after Theresa addresses their new guest. It’s here when the life Old Dolio has shared with her parents emerges as a true form of child abuse, which has left her emotionally fragile in a way most cannot understand. Old Dolio realizes this in one of Kajillionaire’s best scenes when the family enters a dying man’s house they plan to rob. After Melanie says that all he wants is to hear family sounds from his bedroom (so that he may pretend his own loved ones are still alive), the group plays along to make him happy. Melanie plays the piano, Theresa starts messing with dishes in the kitchen while talking about dinner and Robert takes a seat on the recliner as he starts to go on about sports. Watching Old Dolio sitting sill on the couch during this scene is heartbreaking as she suddenly realizes everything she’s never had from the people who could never give it to her.
The quartet of acting in Kajillionaire is just too superb. Winger and Jenkins add to their impressive resumes as two vagabond souls who were made for each other through an endless wave of idiosyncrasies and magical chemistry. Rodriguez literally bounces off the screen in every scene she’s in while managing to show the humanity and depth behind a character much of society would be quick to write off. Needless to say, Wood has the trickiest role in the film as a woman who never really had a chance given her upbringing. Old Dolio isn’t the most active participant in Kajillionaire, but the way the actress plays her, sensing and absorbing every situation she’s in (most for the first time) makes for one of the best performances of the year.
Although I only sought out this film because of Winger’s involvement, I couldn’t think of a better way to unofficially kick off awards season. I loved everything about Kajillionaire. I loved the new bonds that developed between certain characters which totally took me by surprise in the best possible way, I loved the surprising move other characters made in the film’s final act and I loved how the story’s emotions would suddenly appear out of nowhere in the most organic and moving of ways. Kajillionaire is Old Dolio’s story, and in every sense this is her belated coming-of-age tale. As quirky and heartbreaking as July’s film is, there’s a true beauty at the heart of this offbeat comedic character study which looks at both the past and present through a kaleidoscopic lens and shows the strength it takes to move forward.