A Scammer’s Daughter Questions the Family Business in ‘Kajillionaire’

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in 'Kajillionaire.' (Focus Features)

Scammers fascinate us. In a world where those who do things the “right” way are so rarely rewarded for following the rules, there’s an appeal to the fraudulent approach.

I’ve only met a few scammers, but I think back on the audacity of their claims with a certain amount of awe: people who pretended to be enrolled in a school they no longer attended; people who lied about their relationships, their jobs, their bank balances. The most unnerving scams are the ones that seem to eschew money, sapping a victim’s time, attention and affection instead.

We try to understand, attracted by the scammer’s bravado and repulsed by the feeling we could just as easily fall prey. Who could do that? we ask ourselves. And why?

In Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s newest film, the motivations behind the scamming are clear, even if their origins are not. A family of Los Angeles grifters float through life on various skims to simply get by. They’ve developed a repertoire of sometimes very complicated methodologies to make a few bucks here and there, perfectly illustrated in the film’s candy-colored opening scene.

Three people bend to hide below a low wall outside a green building with a sign that says "Bubbles, Inc."
Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins hide from their landlord in 'Kajillionaire.' (Focus Features)

Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and Old Dolio (a deep-voiced, androgynous Evan Rachel Wood) wait outside a post office for a window of opportunity. Theresa’s “now!” launches Old Dolio into a parkour-like approach to the post office’s front door, jumping, rolling and crouching to avoid the watchful eyes of cameras and workers. The elaborate entrance allows her to reach through a post office box and grab at whatever fills the nearby slots—ultimately, not much.

Sponsored

Their small-scale schemes get put to the test when their landlord tearily demands back rent. Their “apartment,” a cubicle-filled office space that shares a wall with a bubble factory, routinely suffers an overflow of pink foam that must be scooped off the wall and dumped down a drain in order to be semi-liveable. (This is just one of several surrealist details that makes Kajillionaire delightfully weird or annoyingly twee, depending on how apt you are to love all things Miranda July.)

The family’s relationship is affectionless and uneven, and domineering, conspiracy-prone Robert calls all the shots. An alternative, warmer way of being opens up to Old Dolio when the threesome becomes a foursome, joining forces with an optician’s assistant named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). She’s everything Old Dolio is not: comfortable in her body, outgoing and chatty. But even gainfully employed, rent-paying Melanie feels the pull of the scam, proposing the family charm her lonely older patients into giving away their antiques.

A woman in a white jacket and a woman in baggy clothes push a shopping cart next to a refrigerated display in a market.
Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in 'Kajillionaire.' (Focus Features)

Overshadowing all of Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio’s activities—and perhaps reinforcing them—is the threat of “The Big One,” the earthquake that will flatten Los Angeles and make all human connection, all striving and playing by the rules ultimately pointless. Theirs is an apocalyptic mentality, cultish and closed off. Melanie’s relationship with her mother (love expressed through the obsessive purchase of things) is by turn exceedingly normal, and therefore completely alien to Old Dolio.

The latter half of Kajillionaire builds on the inherent drama of the scam. As Old Dolio and Melanie grow closer, and we cheer on the former’s tentative exhibitions of human emotion and self-expression, we remain wary. Is this potential new relationship a lie? Is there an ongoing, large-scale and perhaps lifelong scam in the works?

The world July creates for her characters is drenched in sunlight but tinged with fatalism. The Big One looms. In one scene, while stealing from a man on his deathbed, the family enacts the sounds of a busy household to fulfill his last wish. The playacting is crushing for Old Dolio, who sees what might have been if her parents had not opted for their cold, transactional version of family.

“Most people want to be kajillionaires, that’s the dream,” Robert says early in the film, laying out his philosophy of low-stakes scams. “That’s how they get you hooked, hooked on sugar, hooked on caffeine.” In opting out of the scam that is the American system—or so Robert might frame it—Old Dolio realizes they’ve also managed to empty their lives of the sweetest, freest thing: love.

‘Kajillionaire’ is now playing at select theaters, including the Fairfax Theatre. Details here.