Miranda July made a big splash with her debut feature, You, Me and Everyone We Know in 2005. She may not have challenged the superhero flicks at the box office, but she became an overnight sensation on the Indie circuit. A performance artist, actor and novelist, July is an all-round creative personality who treats her movies as works of art. In You, Me and Everyone We Know she pulled off the near-impossible feat of making an arthouse film with broad popular appeal. Although the story was strange and whimsical it had tremendous charm.
This charm was stretched a little thinner in her second film, The Future (2011), and has largely disappeared from Kajillionaire, which features her most high-profile cast to date. There’s plenty of weirdness but the lead characters are so relentlessly repulsive the story leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
A quick glance at the American reviews and responses suggests July hasn’t lost her critical appeal, but it’s difficult to imagine audiences warming to one of the most dysfunctional families ever to dis-grace the screen. One shouldn’t expect realism from July, or even plausibility, but the framework of humdrum reality allows us to believe it could all be true.
Meet the Dynes. Robert, Theresa and their 26-year-old daughter, Old Olio (yes, that’s really her name), are a family of unscrupulous grifters who live in Los Angeles on the proceeds of the pettiest of petty crimes. It’s a precarious existence that brings in barely enough to pay the rent on the nondescript office they call home.
These lodgings must be pretty cheap because great blobs of pink foam periodically seep through the walls from the factory next door. Nevertheless the Dynes makes strenous efforts to avoid the landlord, Stovik (Mark Ivanir), who also owns the factory. Whenever he catches them they make excuses while he goes into a meltdown. “I have no filters,” he explains.
Rarely has such a distinguished cast been asked to play such scabrous roles. The trio seem to dress in whatever clothes come to hand. Both mother and daughter have hair that reaches down to their waists.
Richard Jenkins’s Robert is a peevish, sleazy, self-aggrandising boor, who delights in expounding his theories about society and human nature. His wife Theresa (Debra Winger), is Yin to his Yang: quick to agree to every new scam or dodge. Old Olio, played by an unrecognisable Evan Rachel Wood, is a severely damaged personality, probably an Aspberger’s case. She was named after an elderly neighbour in the hope he might favour the Dynes in his will. As it happened they ended up with nothing but the name.
Robert and Theresa are proud to have always treated their daughter like a partner in a firm, never showing her any affection. The only life skills she has acquired are stealing from letter boxes, shop-lifting and scavenging.
Having won a flight to New York in a competition the Dynes’ major concern is how to pull off an insurance scam whereby they pretend to have lost their luggage. Accordingly they fly to New York, hang out at the airport and fly straight back, taking care to grab morsels of half-eaten airline food as they pass down the aisle of the plane.
Fortunately for the plot, on the way home Robert finds himself sitting next to a young Latina named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who says she works as an assistant in an optometrist’s shop. Although the Dynes are instantly thinking about how they can take advantage of Melanie, she seems strangely attracted to the idea of a life of crime. Back in LA she takes the Dynes around to meet some of her elderly clients who live by themselves in big, lonely houses. In one scene the family settles into a parody of suburban comfort while an old, dying man speaks to them from the bedroom.
Melanie’s unlikely fascination with the Dynes soon comes to an end when Robert suggests she join him in a hot tub. When she walks out, she takes Old Olio with her, attempting to break the daughter’s bond with “the monsters”. In the last part of the film we watch Old Olio’s contorted efforts to join the human race as she copes with a fear of apocalyptic earthquakes and discovers her emotions.
July gives us no backstory to explain how the Dynes became so revolting. She provides no good reason that the vivacious Melanie would attach herself, even temporarily, to these freaks. One should not search for logic in this tale, although it’s tempting to draw out a few perverse strands.
On could argue that Robert and Theresa are but small fragments of the greater ruin of contemporary American society. They live from hand to mouth but consider themselves superior beings. They have contempt for the wealthy “kajillionaires”, but covet luxury goods such as fancy ties and hot tubs. They are utterly selfish and amoral, vewing every relationship as transactional. They work hard at avoiding legitimate work, taking delight in every dishonest dollar they can steal or swindle from someone else, rich or poor.
Robert and Theresa represent a dystopian fantasy of parenthood. Imagine, if you will, that the two people who brought you into the world feel no further connection or responsibility. Having spent her entire life immersed in her parents’ twisted fantasies it’s no wonder Old Olio is a basket case – a coiled spring of nervous tension who sees threats everywhere.
It’s well-known that all American movies today seem to be veiled commentaries on the Age of Trump, but one can only marvel at the malignancy of a society that can produce bottom-feeders such as Robert and Theresa. Although a little love enters Old Olio’s life at the very end, she’s hardly more than a feral child who has to learn how to live among human beings. It all adds up to a mirthless comedy that leaves one with a queasy sensation, rather like the Trump re-election campaign.
Written & directed by Miranda July
Starring Rachel Evan Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Mark Ivanir
USA, rated M, 106 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 November, 2020