A friend of mine loves movies about dysfunctional families. It seemed strange to me at first to have such a niche obsession, but the more I thought about it, it made sense. Messed up families are dramatic, entertaining, and even more relatable than romance. We don’t all have a passionate love affair, but most every one of us has some sort of family drama. From Ordinary People to The Royal Tenenbaums to Hereditary, a cinematic dysfunctional family has long been a staple in Hollywood, in every genre. But just when you think you may have seen them all, along comes Kajillionaire.
Written and directed by Miranda July, Kajillionaire is about a mother, father and their 26-year old daughter who are struggling to get by in Los Angeles. With barely a place to live and always desperate for cash, they spend all day every day coming up with schemes for making money, most of them elaborate and hard-to-trace, often not even illegal, but always at least unethical. The daughter, Old Dolio, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is the designated operative to carry out the schemes, but she doesn’t enjoy it.
The problem is, Old Dolio (strange name, the origin even stranger and sadder) doesn’t get much of a say in things. She is clearly just a tool and is unhappy, but she lacks the emotional tools or resources to leave her parents. She is quiet and shy, we can’t quite tell if she’s mentally challenged or just incredibly sheltered, scared or even brainwashed. No matter what, she is clearly scarred, and her parents, particularly her mother, played by Debra Winger, have a tremendous hold over her.
When Old Dolio meets Melanie, played by Gina Rodriguez, during one of their schemes, however, she is struck by Melanie’s confidence, independence and bravado (and she’s more than a little attracted), and she finally feels tempted to act on her desire to break away from her parents and be her own person. But it will take more than just saying goodbye for Old Dolio to walk away, as we see both sides enact schemes of their own to manipulate each other, and the dysfunctional nature of their family dynamic comes home to roost in myriad of weird ways.
While there is potential in the premise, there are just too many questions in this movie that go unanswered. We know nothing about these people, about their background or how they got where they are or why they stay there. Melanie has seemingly no motivation to hang around them, so why does she continue to? Every relationship, circumstance and dynamic in this film is confounding and nothing is as you would expect it to be. I suppose this is exactly what July was going for, but the intention doesn’t quite match up with the execution and the movie comes across as way too weird, but in not enough exceptional ways to be interesting.
Old Dolio is the center of this story, as her battle against both her parents and her own demons (whatever they are) serves as the significant conflict in the film, but Wood’s portrayal is odd and cartoonish, making it hard to latch onto. She lowers her voice significantly, robbing it of any inflection, and all of her movements are stiff and robotic, except for the few occasions when she erupts into a sort of dance that clearly indicate there is much more going on beneath the surface. Wood is an extremely talented actress, as we’ve seen in her starring role in Westworld, and I appreciate how far removed from her Westworld character she is here, but this just feels too forced and strange.
Everything about this movie is strange, and every bit of it feels intentional. But it really needed to be more fun than it ends up being. You’ve got a great cast, with Winger and Richard Jenkins, who plays the father, alongside Rodriguez and Wood, but each of these characters are defined by their actions, not by their intentions, and that makes it hard for the audience to connect, especially to why anything is even happening. Winger and Jenkins are terrific, but both feel a bit lost and underutilized. Rodriguez is certainly a jolt of energy the movie needs, and she’s great, but, again, there is no rhyme or reason to her behavior and I couldn’t get past that.
In the end, Kajillionaire sets out to be a lot of things, but isn’t able to land any of them cleanly. It’s a semi-biting satire, a mild dark comedy and a very weird romance, but, beyond seeing Evan Rachel Wood play a very strange oddball, there’s not much to recommend it. Unless you REALLY like messed up families.