America has a soft spot for grifters, a lowly profession that starts on humble street corners and now reaches to the highest level of government. Miranda July’s new film for Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment may come from a familiar enough genre, from House of Games to American Hustle, but their take on the material is fresh. One of the characters confesses to liking the Ocean’s Eleven movies which feature Pitt, but the squalid going-on portrayed here are more indie than Hollywood, and that’s a good thing. Two strong female leads, some venerable support and a lack of sentiment make this a treat for those prepared to look beyond the lack of glam.
Robert Dyne (Richard Jenkins) and his wife Theresa (Debra Winger) are the smallest of small time crooks; if you’ve ever dropped cash in the street, or carelessly left your phone on a counter, these are the kind of people that make it vanish without a trace. They steal parcels from post-office delivery centres, return stolen goods for refunds, and are caught in a permanent state of hustle to pay their rent on an ex-office space beside a car-wash, where the bubbles regularly seep through the walls. It’s no place for a child to grow up, but Old Dolio (Westworld’s Rachel Evan Wood) is closer to her parents than most, since she’s a key member of their scam team. Winning tickets for a flight to NYC offers a change to pull a lost-luggage insurance scam, but also brings Melanie Whitacre i(Gina Rodriguez) nto their orbit. With looks which provide a permanent distraction, Melanie enables to team to go on a deep-dive into illegal fund-raising, but Old Dolio is getting frustrated by her parent’s manipulative behaviour, and an unlikely friendship threatens to break the family apart…
Kajillionaire offers a horrendous picture of poverty in America, and it’s notable that this film was made and is set well before the ruinous economic impact of 2020. Everyone is poor, everyone is desperate, and the dream of becoming a Kajillionaire is nothing but a dream. Wood gives a revelatory performance as the downtrodden but self-aware Old Dolio, and teams nicely with Rodriguez in offering an initially unconsummated lesbian affair that feels earned and not added as a sop to today’s times. The heft of their performances is ably matched by Jenkins and Winger, who imbue their seasoned characters with venom and pathos in equal measures.
In better times, Kajillionaire should and would have been a minor cinema hit; even a limited release should help the public understand that this is more than just another heist movie. July skips the narrative through some artful twists, and has a resolution that is, in Mamet-ian terms, both surprising and inevitable. The setting may be dour and dismal, but Kajillionaire is a subtle, clever and nuanced film worth recommending to sophisticates and casual viewers alike. And the message, that some things are worth more than money, is worth remembering at a time when making a buck by any means necessary seems to be driving the morality of many in power.
Thanks to Universal Pictures Uk and DDA PR for early access to this title.
Kajillionaire screened as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival on the 7th October, and is on UK general release from 9th October