“Kajillionaire” repeatedly compares itself to movies such as “Ocean’s 11” and “Mission: Impossible,” but it becomes apparent early on that the film is really about a dysfunctional family, not a heist. “Kajillionaire” does have echoes of some of the lesser “Ocean’s” movies, though — it too attempts to patch over its purposelessness with a shallow payoff at the end.
Written and directed by Miranda July, “Kajillionaire” follows a family of thieves in modern-day Los Angeles who bring a new member into their group in order to steal enough money to pay off their rent. The central character is Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), a closed-off young woman who cares more about earning her parents’ (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) affection than ripping off strangers. As Old Dolio begins to realize she wants more from her life, newcomer Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) shakes up the family dynamic by drawing her parents’ limited attention away from her.
The plot of the film is full of false starts and dead ends. The first arc of the film involves an insurance scam that the family needs to pull to pay their rent. It’s a risky play, but any tension that stems from their potential failure dissipates when they execute the job flawlessly. The main byproduct of this storyline is not the money, but their acquaintance with Melanie, who immediately sets them on a new mission: stealing antiques from the customers at the glasses store where she works.
They only make it to two houses before the plan loses steam. At the second house, they encounter a dying old man whose final wish is for the group to fill the house with sounds of a happy family. Their domestic cosplay is forced at first, but they quickly settle into the roles and find the exercise as cathartic as the old man does.
It’s an interesting scene, and the music and soft lighting telegraphs that it’s meant to be a tender moment inspiring bittersweet feelings for Old Dolio. However, without enough context for us to fully understand the evolution of Old Dolio’s painful relationship with her parents, the stylish construction of the scene can only do so much to support the relatively lifeless plot.
The mixed results of this scene illustrate the fatal flaw of “Kajillionaire”: its failure to give any meaning to the relationship between Old Dolio and her parents. The extent of our knowledge about the family is that the parents have always treated Old Dolio like a partner in crime, not a daughter, and the lack of comfort and love in her life has made her emotionally stunted. The audience is dropped right into the middle of this dynamic, which has clearly existed for years and is finally reaching its breaking point.
Unfortunately, the combination of Wood’s vague performance and the bare-bones writing provides little depth to this familial relationship, which is clearly meant to be sad but ultimately rings hollow. The dissolution of their bond is the driving force behind the events of the film, so the lack of emotional resonance makes an already directionless plot feel utterly torpid at times.
One of the only bright spots of the film is Rodriguez, who brings a dynamism and energy that is severely lacking prior to her arrival. She’s a foil to Old Dolio, someone who can show her the way out of her abusive relationship with her parents. The potential of this relationship is never fully realized, however, largely because Wood’s inexplicably stiff demeanor throughout the film prevents their relationship from feeling at all organic.
“Kajillionaire” seems like it wants to say something about familial relationships, trauma and vulnerability, but its specific intentions are never made clear. The film has an intriguing premise and is often stylishly executed, but its middling performances, amorphous plot and lack of thematic development make it a disappointing viewing experience overall.
Early on in the film, Old Dolio’s father tells her that small, manageable goals are the key to success and that people who aim big tend to come up short. And yet, the ultimate impact of the film proves that Robert was wrong: Sometimes weak ambitions yield weak results.
Contact Matthew DuMont at [email protected].