Kajillionaire (2020)

When I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

It may not seem like much to you (although if you’ve ever struggled with depression, it probably does), but I never felt more seen than I did in the moment that I first read this assortment of words in this particular order. How do other people make it through? Where are they parking their bodies and coping inside of those bodies, hour after endless hour? When you’re in the bottom of your emotional well and every hour feels like days, how are you supposed to live with that? I wanted to know and even knowing that someone else wanted to know it too made me feel less isolated and alone.

The answer to that question is not found in Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s 2020 film (she is credited as both writer and director). The film tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), who was so named by her con artist parents in honor of an unhoused person who won the lottery in the hopes that their daughter would be put in his will (in vain). Her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) prides himself on having no interest in or connection to mainstream consumerism, instead preferring to reject society’s pursuit of wealth and the accompanying desire to become “kajillionaires” to instead live a life in the margins, and her mother Theresa (Debra Winger) is in complete sympatico. They’re rejection of the conventional economy extends to making their home in an inexpensive office next to a soap factory, which also includes a twice-daily scooping of soap bubble overflow that comes out of the walls into a drain in the floor. They’re not just freegans, though: they’re pickpockets, scammers, and con artists, meticulously and obsessively keeping track of surveillance cameras and performing elaborate movements to avoid being seen, largely oblivious to the fact that they stick out like sore thumbs otherwise. Since Old Dolio’s childhood, they have split everything three ways. 

After attending a pregnancy preparation course taught by Dead to Me’s Diana-Maria Riva, Old Dolio starts to recognize how little her parents care for her emotional well being (read: not even a little bit). This is exacerbated when, while doing a quick airline luggage fraud scam, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and adopt her into their schemes while also immediately beginning to treat her with more tenderness and concern than their daughter, which does not escape her notice. Seemingly charmed by the thought of Hollywood-style heists, Melanie puts forth the idea of going to the homes of the lonely, elderly customers at the mall-based ophthalmology office where she works and complimenting their antiques until they offer her something of value, which the quartet could then flip. Ultimately, she finds the desperate, morally questionable actions of the Dyne clan to be seedier and less Ocean’s Eleven than she expected, but not before she develops a crush on the emotionally damaged Old Dolio. When Theresa can’t manage to use a single term of endearment for her daughter, Melanie promises to do all of that and more. 

Wood is giving a solid performance here,

On a recent Lagniappe episode of the podcast in which we discussed The Other Lamb, Brandon noted that he thought that the film would fall within my wheelhouse because of my interest in cults, be it real life cults like NXIVM or fictional cults like those in The Lodge and The Endless. And it’s true, and it’s also true that, as we discussed in that episode (and in other places), although I wasn’t raised in a cult per se, I did grow up in a particular segment of Evangelical Christianity that was very particular in its beliefs, and, like the Dyne parents here, created a mythology that was not only outside of and opposed to the mainstream, but was also strictly about opposition to the mainstream as part of its ideology. What really worked for me about Kajillionaire was Robert and Theresa’s strange little beliefs and how those beliefs so heavily affected their raising of Old Dolio not as a child but as a tool. Their self-centeredness and codependence upon each other, to the point of ostracizing their daughter, is played for laughs, and it’s often funny, but it’s also horribly depressing. When Old Dolio wins a trip to New York, her earnest attempts to take the trip with just her mother is not only rebuffed by Theresa, but Robert later uses it to denigrate his daughter as part of one of his many angry diatribes about how their way of life is the only feasible way. When Old Dolio manages to graft the aforementioned lost-luggage-insurance-fraud scam onto the trip to net just enough for the family to pay their back rent, said con involves flying to NYC together and flying back separately as strangers, but George immediately insists that he and Theresa will be a couple, and Old Dolio will travel alone. Not only is an arrangement of Richard flying alone while Theresa and Old Dolio fly together not even considered, but Richard and his wife are true narcissists who only see their daughter as a prop for their “jobs,” and nothing more. 

The Dynes don’t want to be “fake” people, behaving as society expects a parent to, and they find the idea of treating Old Dolio with tenderness as both artificial and patronizing, as if undignified. And I’ll be honest: that speaks to me, too. It’s probably the a reason that I am not very good with children (and wasn’t even when I was one, although there was also the bullying), as I find it hard to engage with them when the situation (very rarely, thankfully) requires me to do so. But this film carries that idea through to its inevitable dark end when applied to parenting, and although the film’s marketing makes it look like this situation will be at least somewhat charming before conflict arises, it’s clear from the earliest moments that this is completely unhealthy, and that the world within which Old Dolio is trapped is one where even the slightest kindness or touch of comfort or is completely alien to her. 

There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable. In that, it’s worth a watch, although I’d wait until after its hefty rental price comes down a little.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond