It may be a back-handed compliment to point out that Miranda July’s third film, Kajillionaire, is effective partly because the writer-director herself is nowhere to be seen on screen. July’s eccentric ditz routine only amplified the archness of her previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), which were frequently as kooky and calculatedly hipster-friendly as any Brooklyn brunch joint.
Right from its first shot, though, Kajillionaire puts three flies in the pancake batter: the Dynes, a mother-father-daughter team (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood) of breadline grifters, scowling in thrift-shop threads, devoid of any social graces as they scratch by on theft and petty scams.
Even the daughter’s identity is tangled up in one of her parents’ cockamamie schemes. She was named Old Dolio, it seems, in a failed effort to curry favour with an acquaintance of the same name, who had recently won the lottery.
In the course of one of the Dynes’ con tricks, they acquire a fourth member, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who as a fan of the Ocean’s movies is thrilled to be part of a real-life heist. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort.
The cash involved in their latest insurance con is barely enough to cover the rent arrears on the disused office where the family lives. That makeshift home is downstairs at Bubbles, Inc, where part of the tenants’ daily ritual is to scoop up the gigantic, gloopy pink suds leaking down the walls during business hours.
The mother, Theresa (never was a parent less aptly named), can’t bear to address her daughter as “hun” even when offered a cash incentive, while Old Dolio is aghast at being touched during a massage, and yet here they are working together to collect and dispose of this overflowing fluffiness, this symbol for the emotions they have trained themselves not to feel, a seemingly sentient mass which suggests the blob in The Blob (1957). Like the living, writhing T-shirt in The Future, the image is striking enough to slip free of any potential meaning attached to it.
The economic realities of the Dynes’ daily routine are shot through with comic originality. At one point, Old Dolio tries to stay out of sight of the landlord as she walks past his fence, craning her body sharply backwards rather than squatting; it’s a loopy and inspired piece of limbo-esque slapstick which transforms her into one of Robert Crumb’s ‘Keep on Truckin’’ figures.
The cinematographer Sebastian Winterø’s placid, precise tracking shots put the gleam on the jokes, but somehow the grittiness isn’t undercut by the absurdism. It would be overpraising Kajillionaire to claim that it is the equal of anything by Aki Kaurismäki but there’s a similar blend here of the bleak and the blithe.
Most importantly, Melanie’s participation introduces a charged racial element. Crime for her, as a Puerto Rican woman, has consequences far outside the family’s experience. “If we get caught it’s much worse for me,” she explains.
There may be something dubious about using Melanie, the exotic outsider both racially and sexually, to break through Old Dolio’s repressive barricades. On the other hand, this is a film in which improvised families turn out without exception to be more authentic than blood relatives – witness the pantomime of fake family chit-chat that the Dynes and Melanie touchingly perform for a terminally ill man whose house they’ve entered under a false pretext.
Con-trick movies, from House of Games (1987) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) to Matchstick Men (2003), usually end with a last-minute switcheroo, and Kajillionaire is no exception. What has changed is the emphasis. Loss is reconfigured cleverly as a gain, and two queer women are not so much swindled as left with the blessing of a blank slate, freed from the blueprints for family life that have held them back so far.
Originally published: 7 October 2020