Back with a feature directorial effort for the first time in almost a decade, lauded multi-hyphenate Miranda July concentrates her offbeat point of view on a Los Angeles scammer who’s never known tenderness in the peculiarly titled “Kajillionaire,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night. The cleverly formulated observations on family ties and interpersonal conflicts that characterize July’s style are at hand, though ultimately not in optimal shape.
Androgynous Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), named after a neighborhood character, sports shockingly long hair, dresses in ill-fitted clothing and speaks in a deep monotone. Her calculating parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), raised her to believe in the impracticality of emotions and to approach every interaction with others as an opportunity for financial gain. Whatever they make is split evenly among the three.
For this clan of small-time swindlers with an affinity for conspiracy theories, bonding means cleaning the foam that leaks through the back wall of the office space they rent from a benevolent landlord. Their synchronized watches always bring them together for the task. Motifs like this one, or the periodic tremors that seem to denote turning points for the plot and for Old Dolio, enable July to generate non-traditional possibilities for intimacy.
Wood’s inspired commitment to a part brimming with awkwardness keeps it from jumping over the fence into ridiculousness. Transformative, to say the least, the role of Old Dolio requires the actress to look perpetually alert, rigid and uncomfortable. It’s an internalized performance that slowly breaks out as the young woman she portrays falls in love and retrains her brain. It’s truly unlike anything Wood has done before.
No concrete backstory is provided as to why Old Dolio’s parents stopped being “straight shooters” and turned to elaborate petty theft to survive, or if they were ever not criminals. While the obliqueness of their past beyond their disdain for the wealthy and the system is part of the movie’s “we are who are” conceit, the overall tone lacks the heartfelt or even humorous impact of similarly themed titles such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” or even Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
There’s a shift in dynamic once the effervescent Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) enters their circle following an airline-related “job.” Equally intrigued and perturbed by their antics, the young Latina becomes an agent of change who sympathizes with Old Dolio’s need for affection. In of her most accomplished film appearances to date, Rodriguez enlivens “Kajillionaire” with nuanced gentleness and humanity.
A virtue of July’s writing for Rodriguez is that there are only a pair of lines where the color of her skin is pointed out or where she notes that being Puerto Rican, she could get in more trouble that her white counterparts. Generally, her character is not defined by her identity, but by the kindness with which she treats Old Dolio.
Melanie has an overbearing and overprotective mother, and here is where the fact that she is Latina matters because of family-oriented trope associated with the community. This makes the contrast the writer-director is aiming for far too evidently clear-cut: Each of them wants what the other has. Old Dolio craves the normalcy of a pancake breakfast in the morning or loving pet names from a caring mother, while Melanie hangs around to experience a thrill that’s absent from her life.
Loosely invoking Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps,” the most dramatic sequence takes the family and their newest adoptive member to the home of a defenseless elderly man whom they plan to rob. The man asks them to pretend to inhabit the home: to clink silverware, to play the piano, to have casual conversations among themselves.
In that staged rapport to comfort a lonely soul, Old Dolio discovers that the mundane life most of us take for granted is her unattainable wish. The choreography of the quotidian acts and its resolution makes it irreverently touching. July puts her lead in situations that open her up to other versions of understanding the world, and does the opposite for Melanie by showing her that being completely trusting is a liability.
Predictable beats accumulate scene after scene, leaving us with the sense that July could have strived for a less straightforward devices to dispatch her message. Although “Kajillionaire” fails to fully engage in the same manner as July’s previous dramedies, it’s not entirely unsuccessful as it still compels us to see the people in front of us — not with rushed judgment, but with curiosity for the burdens or joys that have made them who they are. And it makes us chuckle while at it.