That family of South Korean grifters we met at the start of the year are still lodged in our brains. Bong Joon Ho gave us a united family, an integral and essential part of his satirical view of the world and its divisions. Not so the family who lead us through Kajillionaire. In fact, this isn’t a movie about con artists at all, although it takes its time to make up its mind about that – and even longer to decide what it’s really about.
Parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) live off the grid in a disused office space and scrape together cash through various scams – raiding the local post office, getting refunds on stolen goods and generally conning anybody that comes their way out of money, possessions or both. Old Dolio is the key to their dubious success, adopting a variety of guises to wheedle her way into others’ confidence, but when the family takes on a new recruit, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), her attitude towards what she does starts to change.
Miranda July’s latest is billed as a comedy and, while it has some amusing moments, the laughs are limited and, at best, supressed. It’s on much more secure and convincing ground in its final third, but first of all it has to get through an hour or so of plot and baffle the audience with it as the same time. It’s sixty minutes of the threesome’s various cons, meandering along in no particular direction and making the audience wonder if there is a point to what they’re watching, let alone what it might be. But there are nuggets tucked into the narrative that point at what’s to come, and most of them relate to Old Dolio. Her reluctance to be touched when, having failed to get money back on a gift voucher, she has to have a massage. Her reaction to a video showing how newborn babies bond with their mothers when she attends a parenting class to make a fast buck. Something’s brewing, but we can’t guess what and whether we stick around long enough to find out is questionable.
Thanks to Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, we do. Hiding her face behind a curtain of incredibly long hair, she’s a total misfit, unable to interact with anybody, parents included. Speaking in a deep monotone and using her body to agile, and sometimes comedic effect, the film is essentially about her and how she’s been affected by her parents’ behaviour. The story behind her name speaks volumes for her upbringing and when she sees her parents treat Melanie with more kindness than they’ve ever shown her, it’s the beginning of her coming to terms with her feelings. It’s also the start of the film morphing into something else entirely, a movie about families, their endless complexities and the effects of less than ideal parenting – even if the parents think they’re doing a good job. But, having spent an hour on all those cons and scams, there’s little more than half an hour to fit in what is essentially the real film.
The final third is easily the most satisfying of the film, with Wood’s deadpan performance really coming into its own and the audience feeling a surprising amount of empathy not only for her, but her parents as well. But there’s no escaping that overlong preamble, one which is surreal to the point of obtuse and which runs the risk of losing our attention altogether. Unless, of course, we were being conned ourselves – and being set up for something a whole lot more interesting …..
Comedy | Cert: 12A | Universal Pictures | London Film Festival, 7 October 2020. In cinemas 9 October 2020 | Dir. Miranda July | Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez.