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by Peter Sobczynski

"More Than Just "Parawhite"
4 stars

In 2005, author and performance artist Miranda July made her debut as a writer-director with “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” an offbeat, engaging and utterly original comedy about interpersonal relationships involving a cast of quirky characters that was funny and observant in the ways that they dealt (or didn’t) with questions about love and sex without ever becoming too twee for its own good. Six years later, she followed that up with the vaguely similar “The Future” and while the end result was not quite the standout work that her previous achievement was, it was still smart and amusing and reiterated July as an artist who was willing to march to the beat of her own drum, no matter where it might take her. Now, nearly a decade after that film, she has finally returned with her third feature, “Kajillionaire,” and for the first time, she is working within the confines of a recognizable genre, though it may not be that recognizable once she is through with it. Although the film is uneven and takes a long time to finally hit its stride, it is ultimately an entertaining and occasionally moving work that allows her to tell a story that is more overtly accessible to mass audiences without losing the distinctive touches that made her previous efforts so unique.

The film centers around a family of low-level grifters who spend their days running any number of would-be scams and schemes in order to make a buck without conforming to the system. While Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) are content with their grubby lot in life, daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is not so sure. Having been treated since birth by her parents as an accomplice instead of as a daughter (they speak proudly about how they split everything they earn three ways), she is belatedly beginning to realize the loss of simple affection that she has been denied her entire life by people who were more concerned with teaching her how to avoid security cameras.

Things come to a head for Old Dolio (yes, the name is explained) when they cross paths Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a brash and outgoing type who they meet on a plane while running a scam that hinges on Old Dolio not being connected to her parents in any way. Melanie quickly figures out what they are and not only is she amused by it all, she even offers up her own ideas for a couple of scores. To Old Dolio’s surprise and anger, Robert and Theresa not only include Melanie into their group, they begin treating her with the kind of parental affection (at least at first) that they had consciously denied her for her entire life. To make things even more complicated, Melanie makes it clear that she does have genuine feelings for Old Dolio, a notion that runs against everything she has known and which leads to any number of unexpected developments involving the four.

I was a big fan of July’s first film and liked her second, though with some reservations that she was starting to repeat herself, but I must confess that the opening 30-40 minutes of “Kajillionaire” did not exactly fill me with confidence. The opening made it come across like an overly twee variation of “Parasite” and some of July’s quirkier touches, such as the array of pink bubbles that pour into the dilapidated and nearly condemned office space where Old Dolio’s family is currently living (and regularly ducking the landlord), felt too forced and contrived, like they were purloined from Michel Gondry’s sketchbook of ideas. I enjoyed the performances—any chance to see Debra Winger at work is something to treasure—but the problem is that they all felt like performances and I never quite believed that any of the characters would behave in the ways depicted here. By this point, “Kajillionaire” just felt like a misguided attempt by a fringe artist trying to break into the mainstream with a work that was too silly and conventional for her old audience and too off-cuttingly strange for newcomers to connect with in any real way.

As soon as the developing relationship between Old Dolio and Melanie began to take center stage, however, I felt as if the film was finally beginning to snap into focus. The situations and the humor are still offbeat but now there was an emotional undercurrent to the material that I found myself responding to as well. As Old Dolio slowly begins to learn how to become a person who can finally learn to accept love and affection after being denied it for so long, Wood’s performance finally moved from actorly affectation to something touching and genuine, especially in her scenes opposite Rodriguez. Meanwhile, Jay begins to ease up on the self-conscious weirdness-for-weirdness-sake attitude in order to embrace a more humane storytelling approach that is unlike anything that she has done before. Here is a film where the big cathartic climax comes with a visit to a department store to return a number of items and damned if it isn’t one of the most satisfying, if unlikely, happy endings to turn up in any movie in quite some time.

Because of its use of recognizable genre tropes and a cast of familiar faces (this is the first of July’s films in which she has not played a major role in front of the camera), there are some who may look at “Kajillionaire” as a sellout move. Fat chance because while it may be more conventional than her other films, there is never the sense that you are watching the work of someone trying to completely hide their natural artistic inclinations in the hopes of attracting a bigger audience that might not accept her more unusual artistic moves. The end result may not be enough to bring July’s more vociferous naysayers into the fold but those looking for a film that is offbeat, funny and touching in equal measure should find it to be an effective and winning piece of entertainment.

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originally posted: 09/25/20 03:22:04
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  25-Sep-2020 (R)



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