*. Kajillionaire should have been good. The cast is excellent. It was nice to see Debra Winger again, Richard Jenkins is always fun, and though I’m not as familiar with her I was impressed by Evan Rachel Wood in the cable series Westworld. I didn’t know Gina Rodriguez at all, but she more than holds her own, playing the only normal person in the ensemble.
*. That ensemble consists of the Dyne family — dad (Jenkins), mom (Winger) and “Old Dolio” (Wood) — plus Rodriguez as a girl they pick up, improbably, on a cross-country flight. The Dynes are scammers, a term I use to denote a sort of down-market version of con artist, hustler, or grifter. Despite being committed to a life of crime they live hand-to-mouth in a building that is constantly being invaded by a blob-like spread of some kind of toxic-seeming waste.
*. This led me to once again reflect on why there are people who work so hard to make money illegally when they’d have an easier go of it just taking a part-time job for minimum wage. I’ve known people like that. I guess they like living by their own rules, or are hoping (as the Dynes are) at somehow striking it rich by pulling in some legendary score. In which case they’re stupid, which again would seem to describe the Dynes pretty well.
*. Alas, I said this movie should have been good. But it is not. Wood in particular is wasted, and I wish I had a stronger word for her misuse. Most of the movie I spent wondering just why she was playing Old Dolio the way she was. Presumably this was at writer-director Miranda July’s instruction, but I didn’t get it. Sure Old Dolio is an emotional cripple given how she’s been raised, but here she’s like some kind of autistic feral child, complete with a ridiculous Cousin It mane of hair that I think would make it hard for her to blend in anywhere.
*. Years ago I remember seeing a broadcast of Siskel and Ebert where they talked about how they’d made an agreement not to use the word “quirky” in a review. I think because it constitutes a sort of critical surrender. Why do I like this movie? I don’t know. It’s quirky. Well, quirky is a word that critics loved to throw at Kajillionaire. Maybe they were trying to seem hip with the alt-lesbian love story. In any event, audiences seemed to like it a lot less than the pros, and this time I think the hoi polloi got it right.
*. The quirkiness is also where I think Kajillionaire goes wrong. It tries too hard. Kate Lloyd, writing in Time Out, targeted this, and I think what she says in this respect is spot on. In her review she calls it “a painfully slow family drama where idiosyncrasy trumps emotion and themes of isolation and family dysfunction get lost in the zaniness.” Rodriguez provides “the only injection of realness and vibrancy in a film that’s hampered by its own obsession with being weird.” In sum, “Kajillionaire takes a heartbreaking story – a child of abuse trying to escape her sociopathic parents – and bloats it so full of Little Miss Sunshine kook that any emotional sharpness is left soft and doughy.”
*. So is Old Dolio an original creation? Yes, but only in the sense that original means quirky. Or weird. But not real or relatable. I get the sense that Kajillionaire wants to say something about the hot (or cold) mess that is the contemporary American family, but whatever message it has in this regard was lost on me. In one respect you can think of the Dynes as an old-fashioned nuclear family. They’ve certainly stayed together better than most. But there’s no sense of what holds them together. None of them seem to like each other, or to be getting anything out of being together. So Old Dolio has to reject her wretched parents to find true love with Melanie, in a climax of girl-meets-girl sweetness in the checkout line. And it really is sweet. Only I wasn’t buying that part either.
*. The potential for some fierce satire was there. The family is under stress today in lots of ways, and at the time of its release America’s “first family” was itself a model of sleaze and grift that the Dynes could easily have been cast as a reflection of. But I don’t see where satire was ever in play here. What was July sending up? Entrepreneurialism? The pursuit of money at all costs?
*. I guess I ended up just being confused by Kajillionaire. There’s a birth motif that’s developed throughout, of pushing out of the dark and into the light. Which I think related to Old Dolio’s being born again at the end. But it’s so obvious that she has to break free I didn’t see this as any kind of revelation. I didn’t understand the characters or their world, and more generally I didn’t see what the point of it was. That we all need a hug sometimes? That’s true, but like one of the Dyne cons it doesn’t seem worth the effort.