dir: Miranda July
I don’t get to feel surprise very often, but I’m glad to say that while rare it’s not impossible.
I liked Miranda July’s first film, being Me and You and Everyone We Know, didn’t at all like her 2nd film The Future, and remember little else other than one of the main characters fucking a couch, but this, her third flick, delighted me. Delighted me. No shit.
It's kind of hard to actually pinpoint why I found it so enjoyable, and why I had a goofy grin on my face for much of the film’s duration. There’s nothing in the description, or in any plot summary you might read, that would point to why either. But I did. You’re just going to have to come to terms with that.
Three low level grifters, two parents and their adult kid, grift, scam and skim their way around the less memorable parts of Los Angeles. They are certainly odd bods. The parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) have a certain paranoid energy, and the third member of their trio has her own goofy trajectory.
The first thing we see them do is conduct surveillance on a location, before the gawky daughter does some weird semi-acrobatic movements, before going into a post office, and opening a post office box with a key. She puts her arm through, and then tries to find anything, anything she can grasp, in the other PO boxes adjacent.
It’s the slimmest of slim pickings. Whatever she gets is split three ways between them, as is their wont in all their schemes, we are told later on. They only travel by bus, and when they return to the place where they live, they have to hide, or contort themselves to avoid being seen by the landlord, to whom they of course owe a lot of money.
The landlord runs a business called Bubbles Inc, where they presumably manufacture bubbles. These bubbles overflow over one of the walls into the dilapidated office that the three grifters call home. As a condition of their occupancy, they have to catch the bubbles that overflow the wall with buckets, and then wipe the wall down. To stop it from getting mouldy.
Despite their best contortionist efforts, the landlord sees them, and starts crying as he berates them for the outstanding rent. He is a man with no emotional filters, but that doesn’t predispose him towards letting them live in a toxic environment he leases out rent free. Oh no, that wouldn’t be right. They owe $1500, and need to deliver by Friday or they’re out.
They don’t seem too stressed about it, though. Their view of life, though their own lives seem to be dominated with the petty obsessions it seems to require, aspires to be a rejection of consumerism. A kajillionaire is someone out there, anyone, who aspires to have a job and possessions, and who does a different grift for a living, being the rat race the rest of us normals presumably adhere to.
This might seem like the least likely part of the story right now, but the daughter is called Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), and she has come up with a scam in which they can grift about $1500 involving travel insurance. She is called Old Dolio because… it was just another scam that failed to materialise the untold riches they never earned but felt entitled to. And they never thought to change her name to anything else later on...
Prior to this, to earn a quick $20, Old Dolio goes to an obligatory Parenting Skills presentation, in place of someone who’s pregnant and perhaps in trouble with the law. The presenter roleplays several scenarios, but the key ones involve the importance of touch, affection and holding babies in order to have them turn out mostly okay. This is confusing to Old Dolio, because she has clearly never experienced any affection from her parents, who treat her as an untrustworthy work colleague, but not someone they actually like.
This, perhaps, goes part of the way in explaining why Old Dolio is, to use the technical term, pretty weird. The total and absolutely funniest thing for me here, and in watching the film, and in enjoying what I think is one of the greatest performances of the year, is that Evan Rachel Wood plays the role like a somewhat confident but still awkward and poorly socialized teenage boy. It really is a tremendous performance. She especially reminds me of a particular ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, but let’s not go there. She is a delight and I loved the hell out of her performance. There is a dance she does at a certain point that has to absolutely be seen to be believed, because she has to channel this completely rhythmless white boy skater energy into movement in what must have been a completely non-intuitive way, and I was left with my mouth hanging open, honestly.
During that airplane scam they encounter a person presumably from the real world called Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who is amused by their antics but also a bit quietly horrified by how unused to the ways of regular humans this trio are. When she and Old Dolio go to a supermarket, she listens as Dolio explains where all the cameras are, and all the tricks and shortcuts she’s learned from her years scamming, but then patiently explains to Dolio that none of that applies right now because she plans on paying for stuff. You know, like people do.
It's a bit hard at first to figure out why Melanie, who seems fairly well adjusted, would spend as much time as she does with these people, since you’d think she would be weirded out or bored by them fairly quickly. I guess there are all sorts of motivations possible, even down to loneliness. Maybe she pities them, or Old Dolio, or thinks she can help them through their self-created current drama. Maybe she’s a good person enjoying the performance of being a low-stakes con artist, whatever that means.
When the money from a scam comes through, and you’d think they’d pay off the landlord, just to, you know, satisfy the central conflict that seemed like it was motivating the plot, instead the Dynes decide to put a down payment on a hot tub. Well, why not I guess. It shows if nothing else that when they scam, it’s not to satisfy particular situations or needs. It’s not to accumulate anything. The elder Dynes would happily throw the money away, whether they lucked into it or worked hard to scam it. It matters not to them.
Through Melanie’s inspiration, and watching some Antiques Roadshow type show on the telly, their next scam seems to be being invited into old people’s houses and trying to scam them out of antiques they don’t know could be worth millions! Kajillions, even! Like most scams it falls apart quite quickly, but the motivation here is to deliver the kind of thing you’d expect, if not demand from the likes of Miranda July.
In one old dying chap’s home, they end up simulating a ‘normal’ family scenario, in order to keep the man happy, they go through the motions of what families are meant to be like, but in an arch, stereotypical way. It’s a lot of things; it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s a bit depressing, and though it has an effect on Old Dolio, it’s shameful to see how little regard Ma and Pa Dyne have for this dying chap, or for anyone, really. But also, him dying alone, with no one around other than these grifters who don’t give two fucks about anything other than his cheque book and ATM card, now that’s social commentary.
The central tension in the story is between Old Dolio and her grifter parents, and not the world they seem to be trying to evade. Life long grifters are perhaps too callous, too mercenary to be able to care about even their own oddball daughter, even if they made her that way. The flick doesn’t come right out and say “you’re shitty parents” or “Nature Versus Nurture – The Road to Victory”, but clearly, considering what Dolio learns, and what her mother mocks her for, affection could have made the difference between being able to connect with humans other than her parents, or being an even better criminal with emotional intelligence that’s off the charts!
Dolio resents Melanie because her parents easily extend to her affections and kindness (or the appearance of it in order to enlist her into their schemes) that they withhold from her. Further on, when they’re forced to pretend to care about Dolio, and about being sorry as to how they’ve treated her for decades, you know their hearts aren’t in it. They are too consumed by the grift, too used to using people, and too intertwined with each other to care about anyone else.
The part where the story seems to go off the rails (involving the hot tub and the promise of group sex, which initially seemed totally out of synch with the rest of the film, until I remembered how comfortable with perversity Miranda July is) only really makes sense later on, when you see it less as a skeezy move from two old birds that really should fucking know better, and more as another scam within a scam, which, honestly, surprised me. I managed, because of the other elements in the story, because of the gentle, humanist relationship growing between Dolio and Melanie, to completely forget that I was watching a flick about shitty con people being shitty con people.
Melanie is incredibly patient, perhaps almost too patient, but in a lot of ways she’s like any real world character that meets by chance someone from the future / someone from the past / someone from Outer Space / someone who’s Amish / someone who’s from South Gippsland, in that it’s their job to teach the main character how to get by in their new alien environment and keep them safe. They’re an audience stand-in, but Gina Rodriguez has too much personality to just be the so-called “straight man” to the Dyne family shenanigans.
She’s very extra. Perhaps best known for playing the lead in telenovela parody Jane the Virgin, she’s been pretty great in a bunch of films already, including being pretty good here. I mean, no-one does work anywhere near as amazing as Evan Rachel Wood in this, but they’re all great in their own ways. Rodriguez’s performance, though, feels like it’s from a different movie, like she’s in a sassy rom com, and the Dynes are in an Addams Family movie or Dirty Rotten Family of Scoundrels, and that in no way detracts from the enjoyment.
There are some amazing scenes that you’re only really going to get in a Miranda July flick. Old Dolio berating the dying man for his illusions, and her perceived ‘freedom’ due to not having any spiritual beliefs or underpinnings to her mortality or morality is matched by the surreal (but still very enjoyable, at least for me) scene in the toilet of a gas station, just when an earthquake hits, just as Old Dolio is absolutely convinced that everyone, especially her, is now dead. It’s, look, it’s stuff if you’re not so inclined to be comfortable with, that will make you roll your eyes so much your head will develop centrifugal force, and damage could ensue. But it worked for me, really well, in synch with the energy of the movie, which is a phrase I can’t believe I just wrote, which is making me roll my eyes at myself now.
The ending is probably perfect, I mean it probably suited these characters and this world that Miranda July created perfectly, and I think it’s just about the most enjoyable film I’ve watched at least in the last half of this dire year. July is an amazingly creative thinker, and a multi-dimensional artist that tries to incorporate a bunch of stuff that sometimes comes across as pretentious and sometimes doesn’t cohere (like in The Future, at least for me, which had plenty of ideas but no real story to tell, and not told well). I think Kajillionaire marries together her creative inspirations and interesting themes (that might resonate for other humans) in a way that was incredibly enjoyable to watch. And while I didn’t laugh out loud much, I did spend most of this flick with a big stupid grin on my face.
9 Oscars they should give Evan Rachel Wood for this performance out of 10, and two of those Oscars should be ones they’ve taken back from Daniel Day Lewis, who now looks like such a hack in comparison. He totally embodies a character, and they call him The Jesus, but Evan Rachel Wood does it, and the world yawns. Not fair.
“Do you? Oh, that's interesting. Because most people want to be kajillionaires. That's the dream. That's how they get you hooked. Hooked on sugar. Hooked on caffeine. Ha,ha,ha. Cry, cry, cry.” – Laugh now, cry later - Kajillionaire