Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
When I interviewed Miranda July at the 2005 Seattle International Film Festival (her feature directing debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was the opener), she had a notebook at hand. She looked through it and told me something funny she’d heard during the plane ride to Seattle—this interview has vanished, so I can’t remember the turn of phrase—and we also spent some time pondering the difference between “electronic” and “electrical,” a distinction I’ve never been clear about.
My point is that July is a notebook-keeper, a jotter, and this trait comes up in the movies she makes. Observant but with a tendency to browse across random subjects, July clearly has a strong talent for whimsy, yet there’s always something dark at the heart of her films, something that can’t be explained away as mere quirk. Whatever notes from her journals came together to form Kajillionaire, the emphasis this time is on zaniness. The dark side is slimmer, although the movie’s portrait of parenting is not kind to this particular family unit.
Our focus is the unfortunately-named Old Dolio, played with gawky, uptight commitment by Evan Rachel Wood. Now in her twenties, Old Dolio has been raised by con-artist parents Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger); they run penny-ante scams and appear to be, shall we say, limited in their long-range goals. They live in a cruddy apartment where every day, at a certain time, the bubble factory next door overflows and big clouds of pink foam come splooging into their place, requiring the family members to get out the squeegees. (The bubble factory next door?) Old Dolio comes up with a pretty credible con involving airline tickets and lost luggage, an escapade that accidentally brings in a significant new character, Melanie (the engaging Gina Rodriguez).
When the relatively normal Melanie enters the scene, the movie gains some ballast, even though the gang maintains its basically sociopathic behavior. At times, July hits a real groove, such as the sequence when the scammers enter the home of a man on death’s door; what follows is a domestic scene of considerable poignancy (the guy is comforted by the sound of clacking silverware, an echo of some past normality), even though our crew is still intent on ripping off the poor bastard.
The concept works, overall, and as a screenwriter July lays in a running formula (it’s literally mathematical) that leads to a satisfying wrap-up. At times she misses things that would seem sure-fire for a more conventional filmmaker, like, say, showing us a little more of how the family operates. And I’m puzzled by the idea of casting a powerhouse like Debra Winger and then not giving her at least a couple of brawny scenes—it’s Winger, after all, and you want to see her show off a little. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about the part (save for one moment when Theresa absolutely cannot bring herself to call Old Dolio “Hon,” or any term of endearment, if you’ll pardon the phrase), nothing that would feel different if you plugged Laura Linney or Hope Davis into the role. That feels like an oversight, and maybe indicative of a lack of savvy that keeps this movie from entirely snapping into place. Its charm is real, though, and when Wood and Rodriguez share the screen in their unlikely partnership, we’re in the company of something undeniably tender and odd.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.