Of all the filmmakers to make a caper film, Miranda July would have ranked very low on the list of people I’d expect. The superstar of the art world has taken time out of her busy career in that sphere to direct three feature films. The first two, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and 2011’s The Future, were discursive, reflective, and occasionally very funny musings on creative types much like July herself. You’d probably figure that her third, Kajillionaire, wouldn’t be a conventional comedy about small-time criminals. You’d be right about that, and even if our multiplexes were operating as normal, this movie would still be unlike anything else out there.
Evan Rachel Wood portrays Old Dolio Dyne — we are given an explanation for her exotic name — a young con artist in L.A. who lives with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) in an abandoned office space where pink soap suds mysteriously come washing over one of the walls every evening at 5:00. The landlord (Mark Ivanir), who has a neurological condition that causes him to cry for no reason, gives the family a break on the rent because they mop up the soap, but he still tells them through his tears that they’re in arrears. That’s when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a fellow grifter who has the gift of the gab that none of them have and is amenable to joining their family crime business. Old Dolio is much less amenable, since her parents start treating Melanie like the daughter they never had. Also, Melanie fairly throws herself at Old Dolio, perhaps only to freak her out.
It does freak her out, and she’s pretty edgy to begin with, as witnessed by a hilarious opening scene where she redeems a coupon from a masseuse (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The 33-year-old Wood has too often been bland and risk-averse in films as different as Across the Universe, Whatever Works, The Ides of March, and Into the Forest, and I’m not sure whether this is a function of the trauma she has publicly discussed going through in her personal life or the delicate-flower roles that she has been cast in. Whatever it is, she cuts loose here and gives her strangest performance to date as she delivers her lines in an unnaturally deep voice, mumbles and stumbles over her words, and looks lost whenever she has to say anything that’s not part of a con. Contrast this with the start of the film, when she does a whole dance routine to avoid being seen by security cameras outside a post office that she intends to rob, or the total focus she suddenly snaps into when she meticulously goes about removing some fake fingernails from Melanie’s hand. Wood creates a compelling misfit, as Old Dolio has been treated by her parents as a partner in crime for so long that she never developed the ability to behave in public. In a bit reminiscent of July’s sonic installations, Old Dolio becomes convinced that she’s dead after she and Melanie are caught in a completely dark gas station bathroom during a mild earthquake, and Wood’s interpretation of a potentially rickety piece of business is quite funny.
Elsewhere, July’s comic instincts remain as sharp as ever, as the Dynes can’t so much as walk down the street without foraging through garbage cans and feeling the coin slots of public phones. There’s also a superb set piece when our four main characters go into the apartment of an old man on a respirator (Michael Twaine) to rob him, only for the dying man to direct them from his bedroom, instructing them to mill around in his living room and kitchen and make conversation as if they’re his family. Kajillionaire may be yet another movie about a con artist who gets conned, but July’s abiding concern about our yearning for human connection is at the heart of this movie’s unexpectedly moving final twist, as Old Dolio finds a love that’s worth a million petty insurance scams.
Starring Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez. Written and directed by Miranda July. Rated R.