TL;DR – a family of con artists live off the grid but face eviction unless they pay the rent. They figure how they can get the money by doing a travel insurance scam, and along the way bump into a woman who wants in on the act and in the process, changing the course of their lives. A quirky, comedy drama that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Extremes in behaviour make for intriguing stories. The movie Nomadland, which won the 2021 Academy Award for Best Picture, revolves around a woman who makes the choice to live as a modern day nomad in her van after losing everything in the recession. It’s an intriguing story even if it doesn’t go anywhere, and it should be noted that ‘intriguing’ doesn’t always equal ‘satisfying’.
Kajillionaire is similar in that it’s about a family that chooses to live a life as grifters. They live frugally, doing small scams and cons, and exist largely off the grid. Unlike Nomadland, which for all its existentialism and great acting, I found largely unsatisfying because there isn’t much of a plot, Kajillionaire delivers a story that starts off quirky and funny, turns toward the disturbing, before rounding out to an ending that transforms the main character.
Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) live a life as con artists. They have a daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who they have raised to be one of them. The why of it is largely because of Robert who has a paranoia about all forms of surveillance and tracking and ultimately believes that society is corrupt. Why Theresa goes along with this, I have no idea, other than she’s married to the man and must have the same beliefs. They have chosen this life, which frankly, requires more work than getting a normal job. Are they happy? Doesn’t seem like it, but maybe that’s not the point when you can stick it to “The Man”.
Old Dolio, on the other hand, born into this family, has had no choice in becoming a con artist. She does so in order to get her parent’s approval and some semblance of affection, which never happens. Robert mostly blames her when things go wrong and takes the credit when it goes right. Theresa will not win any award for mother-of-year as she exhibits not a modicum of love for her own daughter. They named their daughter ‘Old Dolio’ after a hobo who won the lottery in hopes he would leave his namesake some of his money. This sums up how they perceive their daughter, a tool to be used for a con.
There is a quirky comedy to how they go about their lives in the opening scenes of the film, but once this passes, I came dangerously close to switching it off because you come to realise that Robert and Theresa have no redeeming values and they treat their daughter like a robot with no feelings. However, Director and Writer, Miranda July doesn’t drag this out.
Enter Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who meets the trio on a flight. A flight done purposefully as part of an insurance scam conjured up by Old Dolio in order to get some quick cash to pay their landlord, who has been chasing them for rent. Melanie ingratiates herself with the parents and gets Robert to start drinking, which leads to him divulging their plan and getting her on board.
Why Melanie does this is not clear to me, and why she does not see Robert for what he is was also somewhat baffling because later on he reveals his creepy intentions by trying to seduce her in a hot tub. The reason that Robert’s wife, Theresa, goes along with it is also baffling. Perhaps it demonstrates how base they both are. At the same time, there are ambiguities (purposeful) in their character that demonstrates that they stay true to their choice as grifters (for example, they always split their scams three ways with Old Dolio even at the bittersweet end).
Regardless, Melanie sees that Old Dolio has been brainwashed into thinking she has no choice but to live this life that her parents have raised her to be in. The transition from off-beat comedy to romance between the two is genuine (a lot occurs beforehand for the connection to be realised, so it does feel believable and not something that comes out of left field). Old Dolio’s transformation is not by any means smooth. Like a video she watches of a newborn baby crawling on her mother’s chest, to unlearn her behaviours is difficult, at times painful, and altogether uplifting. She is able to do this because Melanie does not give up on her and that is key to the film not drowning in despair. A worthwhile watch.
7 out of 10