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Kajillionaire Review: Study of Toxic Familial Ties

Kajillionaire is a hilarious and heartfelt heist dramedy, led by an eccentric and enormously entertaining Evan Rachel Wood.

You can’t choose your family, and that archaic adage is never more apparent than in Miranda July’s Kajillionaire. Centered around the Dyne family – a group of grifters made up of rascally Richard (Richard Jenkins, of The Shape of Water and The Cabin in the Woods), tenacious Theresa (Debra Winger, of Terms of Endearment and Rachel Getting Married), and the obedient Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, of Thirteen and The Wrestler) – July’s third feature film starts with scenes of strange and screw-y scams before eventually evolving into a far more thoughtful and tender treatise on tenuous familial ties and the emotional lesions that can be left behind from a lack of love. With July’s terrific handling of this tricky tonal tightrope act and an exceptional ensemble cast, this offbeat odyssey proves to be quite a playful and poignant picture overall, and Kajillionaire’s quaint quirkiness is simply too sweet to slight.

Wood’s Old Dolio Dyne is the soul of this sprightly story, and Kajillionaire couldn’t be better blessed with an actress more capable of balancing both its idiosyncrasy and its insightfulness. For 26 years, Old Dolio has been trained to take part in the Dyne’s dastardly deeds, slowly sharpening her strengths in scheming. Unfortunately, Richard and Theresa seem to regard Old Dolio as more of a “comrade in crime” than as their actual child, and, as a result, their sentiment towards Old Dolio has been in short supply throughout her entire life.

Though Old Dolio is more than aware of her cravings for care from her parents, she’s been able to effectively repress these emotions for quite some time – that is, until Richard and Theresa let the lively and loquacious Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, of Annihilation and Someone Great) in on their latest lark, dramatically disrupting the Dynes’ family dynamic. As Richard and Theresa appear to be more affectionate towards Melanie than they ever have towards their own daughter, Old Dolio starts to embrace her exasperation like never before, and, with Melanie’s help, she leaves to learn what life can really offer outside of her parents’ omnipresent oversight.

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Richard Jenkins as “Robert Dyne”, Debra Winger as “Theresa Dyne” and Evan Rachel Wood as “Old Dolio Dyne” in director Miranda July’s KAJILLIONAIRE, a Focus Features release (Matt Kennedy / Focus Features)

With a deadpan demeanor and a wardrobe consisting of clothes that are easily almost three sizes too big, Old Dolio’s peculiar persona may feel overly odd at the start, but Wood subtly imbues the character with a stirring spirit; soon, we can’t help but feel an unanticipated affinity for this stone-faced schemer, especially when we see that this eccentric exterior is merely a shield for long-suppressed sorrow. Wood’s devotion to Old Dolio’s detachedness is deserving of rapturous raves, as, if her character work were to “wobble” at any moment, the entire climate of this tragicomedy could come crashing down. Luckily, Wood understands July’s mixture of mania and melancholy perfectly, and she is never less than completely committed to this concoction. Both humorous and heart-rending, Wood’s Old Dolio is a capricious curiosity that captures our attention from the first frame to the last, and by the time we reach the film’s unforeseen finale, we realize how much we’ve invested in this individual’s specific struggles and strife. The softhearted summation of her storyline ultimately sneaks up on us, with a delicate denouement that just feels fantastically fitting.

Rodriguez is the absolute antithesis to Wood’s Old Dolio in both energy and emotional capability, but she serves as the yin to Old Dolio’s yang in a fascinating fashion. As the newcomer to this tribe of tricksters, Rodriguez’s Melanie is an audience surrogate of sorts, responding to their weirdness as we would and contrasting with their cantankerous characteristics. July and Rodriguez explore both Melanie’s vivacity and her verve in equal measure, proving that her excessive effervescence does not outweigh her invalidate her incredible intelligence; she may have a peppy and perky personality, but she’s just as crafty and cunning as all of the other characters too. Her honesty when honing in on the failures and faults of Old Dolio’s family is also quite honorable, and, as such, she comes to represent both a voice of reason in Old Dolio’s life and a harbinger of hope – a sign of safety and serenity for the future, if you will. Rodriguez carefully channels this cordiality and compassion, and she shines like a star every time she’s onscreen.

As the aforementioned petulant parental figures of the film, Jenkins and Winger are dually delightful and detestable, stupendously showcasing Richard and Theresa’s shortcomings but also delving into the root of their deficiencies and shunning off any and all stereotypes that might arise with these roles. Plenty of actors have played similarly peevish parents, but Jenkins and Winger take a crack at crafting incomparable characters who can be comedic and contemptible in the same scene and who may elicit enmity but always offer understandable explanations for their actions. They may not be pleasant people by any means – especially when taking into the account the totality of their aloofness towards Old Dolio throughout her entire life – but in the end, we can at the very least better perceive their parental passivity, even if it makes us no less nettled. Nonetheless, this duo’s dynamic development and July’s shrewd and sensible script allow for a compelling conclusion that circumvents the typical Hollywood-y trappings of a dysfunctional family fable; rather than revealing any warm and welcoming reunion, July opts for a far more convincing culmination for Richard and Theresa’s character arcs, and this subversion is spectacularly stimulating to see.

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Evan Rachel Wood stars as “Old Dolio Dyne” in director Miranda July’s KAJILLIONAIRE, a Focus Features release. (Matt Kennedy / Focus Features)

Speaking of July, Kajillionaire is a byproduct of her bizarre yet brilliant brain through and through, and it’s hard to imagine that this conglomeration of comedy and consternation would be as coherent under the control of any other creator. You may feel as if you’ve seen these themes before (regarding fragmented families and the damage they can do to our disposition), but July’s aberrant approach to the material allows for far more honesty and humanism than we’ve seen in the past, eschewing cloying clichés and conventions. Likewise, July doesn’t need Wood’s Old Dolio to openly announce her emotional anguish through any theatrical tantrums or moving monologues; instead, she trusts Wood to express these afflictions through her acting alone, while she simultaneously shapes sequences that visually communicate this torment as well – one meditative moment in which the Dynes and Melanie ravishingly roleplay the day in the life of a “normal family” allows Old Dolio to imagine what “may have been” once upon a time, and it’s as authentically affecting as it sounds.

Kajillionaire’s singularly strange sensibilities may turn off audiences expecting more “averagely” amusing entertainment, but, for those who can ride July’s whimsical and weird wavelength, there are quite enough sardonic and sensitive surprises to earn your engagement. With animated and absorbing acting across the board and a sincerely sharp, yet sweet, screenplay, Kajillionaire is an oddball ordeal you won’t want to miss.

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