It is hard to believe that 15 years have passed since Miranda July made a name for herself with Me and You and Everyone We Know an indie gem that appeared to establish her as a triple threat actor-writer-director. Instead of focusing solely on film, July followed a different trajectory, also writing fiction and doing visual art since then. Now, July is back with Kajillionaire, only her third feature since 2005.

Time has done little to erode July’s idiosyncratic style. Though Kajillionaire is well-made and definitely feels part of the artist’s body of work, July’s penchant for twee strangeness often overpowers the sadly sweet narrative. By the end, July’s story gets pushed aside for Art with a capital A’s sake and ends up feeling more like a quirky exercise than a fully-fledged story.

Kajillionaire introduces us to the Dyne family, a father, mother and daughter living in Los Angeles who survive by pulling scams. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is the put-upon daughter who does most of the hard work. She’s the one who steals from post office boxes and tries to turn a profit from fake Good Samaritan acts. Egging her on are Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) a pair of con artists who have never showed their daughter even the slightest modicum of parental affection. Richard is particularly paranoid, afraid of earthquakes, while Theresa is steely and no-nonsense. They have foisted their flaws onto Old Dolio, creating a daughter who is emotionally closed off, terrified of the touch of another human being.

In the first section of Kajillionaire the Dynes learn they must come up with rent money or they will be thrown out of the little office they inhabit next to a bubble factory. In typical July style, the family must clear out the bubbles that threaten their hovel daily or risk a tidal wave of suds. It’s quirky but exists for no reason other than quirk.

Like her past movies, July brings out the best in her actors. Wood is virtually unrecognizable as husky-voiced Old Dolio (named for a homeless man who won the lottery) and Winger turns in some of her best work in years. A certain type of damage lurks under the surface in Old Dolio as she hides behind baggy clothes and long hair in an androgynous disguise of safety. July just takes her time to establish where that hurt is coming from.

July introduces a game-changing character in the film’s second act in Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a young woman who meets Robert and Theresa on a plane where the family is trying to exploit a loophole in lost baggage compensation. Attracted to the art of the grift, Melanie becomes a de facto member of the family when she assists them in defrauding the airlines. She is everything Old Dolio is not: gregarious, confident and bubbly. Robert and Theresa glom onto her, especially when she offers up the addresses of the elderly people who frequent the glasses store where she works as easy marks.

At times, the addition of Melanie threatens to completely derail the film. You don’t expect her to be a major character but her personality is so big, it is easy to forget about Old Dolio, the true protagonist here. The movie also begins to drag when the family attempts to rip off Melanie’s elderly clients, including a sickly man who implores the quartet to pretend they are his family as he slowly tries to die alone in his bedroom.

Kajillionaire really adds up to little more than allowing July the time and space to explore her alternate version of Los Angeles. The actors do their best with the often-thin material and by the time the true grift is revealed, the novelty is spent. There is something sweet that rests underneath the confusion but, unlike July’s first film from 15 years ago, it’s truly hard to care.

Summary
Though Kajillionaire is well-made and definitely feels part of the artist’s body of work, July’s penchant for twee strangeness often overpowers the sadly sweet narrative.
49 %
Predictably quirky
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