“Kajillionaire,” Miranda July’s latest Tales from the Quirky Side, is an almost magically eccentric portrait of longing and lowlife grifting.
It’s as if the filmmaker who brought us “The Future” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know” took a long, hard look at the dark Japanese Oscar contender “Shoplifting” from a couple of years back, and saw the poignancy of lives spent stealing, the gaping hole living from con to con leaves in the heart, and sought to make something silly and romantic out of it.
The three of them are old pros, accomplished at avoiding cameras, heartless in picking their marks and ruthless in their haggling when they’re trying to sell what they’ve obtained via illicit means.
But they’re damaged, “off” somehow. Robert (Richard Jenkins) has a head for timing and figures, but fills it with conspiracies and phobias. Theresa (Debra Winger) could pass for a bag lady, but is something of a sage screwball, passing on “Rich people can be very cheap” to their daughter.
The young woman (Evan Rachel Wood) with the long, uncombed hair? That’s their daughter, Old Dolio, who “learned to forge before she learned to write.” But that name? They’ll explain that later.
Walking the LA streets, we see them in their element — scavengers and pilferers. And now that they’re older, the “parents” lean on the daughter to mastermind and execute their petty crimes and scams.
Her arms are thin enough to raid post office boxes next to the one they rent. She can still pull off “the Catholic schoolgirl uniform” needed to scam parents out of money for “a classmate.” She’s 26, and Wood lets us see guilt, regret and resentment in Old Dolio’s face every time they’re up against it and she needs to make a score.
They obsessively enter online contests to sell the prizes, rent a cheap, dumpy office space next to Bubbles, Inc., some sort of soapworks that leaks mountains of foam into their living space. And they’re behind on the rent. Constantly.
“C’mon, THINK” Robert bellows, plainly expecting Old Dolio to not just tumble into forward rolls to dodge security cameras, but take a “job” to attend the parenting classes some irresponsible pregnant woman they know has been ordered, by the court, to show up for.
That class is where Old Dolio gets confirmation of the love, devotion and nurturing her parents never gave her. To top it off, the jerks are constantly hitting her with putdowns about how emotionally-stunted she is.
“She has tender feelings,” Theresa says of a new acquaintance. “You wouldn’t know anything about that.”
But that new acquaintance, the bubbly, chatty and vivacious Melanie (“Jane the Virgin” alumna Gina Rodriguez) breaks up the “three way split,” throws the team out of balance and generally tips over the apple cart of their cons.
Old Dolio can’t help but see that her parents seem to prefer Melanie’s companionship and assistance to her own, especially when their new “apprentice” pitches a hustle — rob these “old aggros” she knows, irritable, elderly shut-in clients of an optometry practice where she worked. Steal their antiques and sell them.
July created some interesting, conflicted characters, and wrote some funny lines and one absolutely gut-punch of a scene for “Kajillioaire.” But her coup here was the casting.
Winger is all but unrecognizable as a “mother” without a hint of mothering about her, and Jenkins animates every tic and mania Robert keeps in his noggin, a man entirely too highly-strung to be living in an earthquake zone.
Wood, taking a break from “Westworld,” seems too old for the part, which is kind of the point. Old Dolio is trapped in an awful name, stuck in a life with no future in it thanks to those aging parents, and starting to become aware of just how emotionally-deprived she’s been.
Rodriguez delicately balances winsome, sexy and charming with Melanie’s cutthroat instincts, which she’s quick to show off but just as quick to realize aren’t nearly as pitiless as what she sees in this family of vipers.
The one great scene involves an old man, bedridden but grateful to have his home invaders make “family” like noises as he tries, desperately, to breathe his last. Naturally, Old Dolio is saddled with keeping an eye on him as the others figure out what to steal.
“It’s like trying to fall asleep...forever,” he wheezes on his respirator.
Most of the time, July is on the hunt for grins or giggles, getting them from the conflict within the growing “family” and from their weeping, put-upon and always-put-off landlord (Mark Ivanir).
With “Kajillionaire” she’s conjured up a humorously dark character study whose grimmest twists may or may not be real, and certainly aren’t revealed out loud. But an outright remake of “Shoplifters” wouldn’t have the charm and whimsy that are July’s stock in trade.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual references/language.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez.
Credits: Written and directed by Miranda July. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:44