Baby boomers came of age loving films about embracing individuality and escaping their parents' authoritarian moralism, many of them beautiful — "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "A Clockwork Orange," "Easy Rider." Now that boomers have remade the world in their own image, a younger generation is making movies about what that world looks like — it isn't pretty — and how to live in it and maybe survive it.
Miranda July's "Kajillionaire" is one of them — and a lot of other things.
A "kajillion" isn't a real number, so it makes sense that most of what the movie's middle-age con artists, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), along with their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), steal isn't real money. Between a swindled gift certificate here, a little mail fraud there and a lot of funny business with big-box store return departments, the trio manage to eke out a dishonest living and pay for what we'll charitably call a home in an industrial building in Los Angeles, where the rent is very inexpensive because of the flood of pink bubbles that descends from the ceiling regularly — sometimes more than once a day — and must be hauled away in buckets.
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The joke-y hook is that Robert and Theresa believe they're the kind of rakish, amoral tricksters you might find in a movie about a casino heist or a bank robbery; Jenkins in particular does a beautiful job of playing a guy who is absolutely convinced he's a George Clooney hero. But we can see that they're merely selfish, amusingly deluded crooks whose greed becomes less charming the more we see of their daughter, a woman who has been utterly smashed by their indifference.
So it is a heist film — and an absolutely savage one — but less about receipt fraud and more about how, in their declining years, the Me Generation simply won't go away without taking everything they can carry with them.
At one point, Robert and Theresa take Old Dolio and Melanie, played by Gina Rodriguez, out to a fancy dinner and recall their years of doing things other than stealing from people. "Of course, then the culture changed," says Robert, by way of explaining how they fell so far. "Maybe it'll change back!" Theresa says hopefully. Of course, it won't change back; culture is a product of the people in it. And Theresa and Robert won't change.
But "Kajillionaire" is also an essential L.A. movie, its sunny despair unmistakable, and it's about a sweet and tentative romance between Old Dolio and Melanie, who is as glamorous as Wood is deliberately frumpy.
Wood, incidentally, is a revelation here. Hidden inside her baggy trackwear and her father's shirts, she exudes a sense that, at any moment, she might burst into song or tears or just fly at her parents in a rage. (When July gives Wood a few precious moments to play that release, it's breathtaking to see.)
Rodriguez, on the other hand, has a hard job here, and an interesting one. She's our barometer for what normal ought to be, whereas Jenkins and Winger, the avaricious old hippies, are there to remind us of what normal is, which is a depressing sight, to say the least. (I'd like to say this is unfair, but you'd have to catch me in an especially good mood and several hours out from any news consumption to hear it from me.)
There are already quite a few treacly movies and books about the millennial tendency to create family out of trustworthy friends and romantic partners. "Kajillionaire" spends more time than most of them demonstrating why it is necessary for so many people to do this, and it wraps into it the profound need to escape boomer materialism — even if we do so with nothing but the clothes on our backs.