Kajillionaire is the opposite of the ‘one last big job’ movie, but it works

Latest from Miranda July includes trademark quirks and scenes to break your heart

If you visit you’ll find Kajillionaire described thusly: “A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.”

And I’m here to tell you that’s wrong. Nothing about the lives of Robert and Theresa is major. They’re the most minor of grifters, rolling from one scam to the next, sometimes with a plan, often on a whim, usually just to scrape together rent on their – well, I guess you’d call it an apartment but it’s just an abandoned office that leaks pink soap bubbles three times a day. “It leaks on a schedule,” their landlord notes defensively.

But that title is pure irony. “I prefer to just skim,” says Robert. They’re like the family in Parasite, minus the killer instinct and the negotiating skills. They travel the streets of Los Angeles by bus. “Take the two,” Theresa says, plotting out their next sting. “It goes there from here.” And then, tiredly: “We got time.”

Theresa is played by Debra Winger, and Robert is Richard Jenkins, whom you can also see this week in the new release The Last Shift. But the standout performance here is Evan Rachel Wood, almost unrecognizable under waist-length blond hair and a voice she seems to have stolen from Timothée Chalamet. She’s their daughter, Old Dolio, although when you hear the story of how she got her name you’ll know they won’t be winning any parenting awards.

I prefer to just skim

Like a Dickens street urchin, Old Dolio always seems to be the one doing the drudgework, whether it’s craftily stealing other people’s post office box deliveries, or returning lost items in the hopes of garnering a reward. When they win a trip to New York, she suggests a family vacation. Her parents counter with a con whereby they’ll fly there and back and then “lose” a suitcase and claim damages.

Plans change when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on the return flight, and enlist her help in that lost luggage “major heist.” She gets a taste for it and starts suggesting additional swindles. Robert and Theresa are thrilled to have her on board – Robert a little too thrilled if you know what I mean – while Old Dolio feels threatened by this exuberant, feminine rival.

Kajillionaire is the latest from writer/director Miranda July, who between her essay writing, performance art and life in general can’t be counted on to release movies frequently – this is just her third feature, after the excellent 2005 romantic comedy Me and You and Everyone We Know, and the somewhat more scattershot 2011 “emotional sci-fi” The Future.

She can, however, be counted on to stuff her work with quirky details, whether it’s the constant earth tremors that everyone around our protagonists seems to ignore, or their Ukrainian landlord who is constantly on the verge of tears. “I have no filters,” he explains, sobbing.

Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll come away with more than pink bubbles on your nails. July’s movies (all three of them now) have always dealt with the difficulty of human connection, coupled with the absurdity of 21st-century consumerism. (Me and You featured a 10-year-old busily stocking a hope chest for the day she becomes a mother.)

So while there are plenty of giggles in this oddball tale, there are also scenes to break your heart. Take the bit where Melanie and her accomplices visit an old man, ostensibly to deliver some spectacles, actually to steal his chequebook, and eventually, at his behest, to make comforting familial noises from the next room while he passes away in his bed.

The weak link in the story turns out to be Melanie, a failing I’m going to attribute to poor direction rather than bad acting. Rodriguez’s expression seems to shift from sympathetic to mercenary to stunned and back around again, often within a single scene. Is she seeking the same connection as me and you and everyone we know, or is she playing the long game, like a character out of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

It’s a problem but not a deal-breaker, and fans of July’s earlier work will doubtless enjoy the filmmaker’s latest wonky take on modern life. And it’s nice to know that Robert and Theresa can sometimes rouse themselves to something like parental affection. Watching his daughter copying a woman’s signature on a blank cheque, he beams and says proudly: “Learned to forge before she learned to write!”

Kajillionaire opens Sept. 24 across Canada.

3.5 stars out of 5

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