Something More November 17, 2020
On Kajillionaire and Shithouse
This routine, it seems (the film doesn’t give us much of a backstory), has gone on for all of Old Dolio’s life. Too afraid to leave the nest, she's spent the last 26 years in thrall to her parents, both because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself and also, we can assume, because she is waiting for them to show her a love she will probably never get. Robert and Theresa have never treated their daughter like their daughter — more an accomplice they don’t really like but keep around because they have been loyal for so long. If they do show any warmth, the first thought is not that it’s sincere but that it is a ploy in a grift in which Old Dolio has not been included. Any amount of money reaped from a “job” they manage to pull off gets split three ways. But when someone asks Old Dolio late in the movie whether she has ever spent any of her portion on herself, she can’t be very sure. Even her name is impersonal. Almost inevitably, it’s related to a failed scam.
Kajillionaire doesn’t exclusively dwell in this fucked-up, hazardously insular family dynamic. Something of a plot springs up in the movie when, while traveling, the Dynes meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a gregarious and charismatic woman who introduces herself as an ophthalmologist’s assistant but later reveals that she was lying — she actually sells bifocals to elderly people. This white lie helps bring on a quick kinship. Melanie especially takes to Robert and Theresa, who automatically behave more paternally around her than they ever have with Old Dolio. Is this part of a scam we haven’t been clued into? Robert and Theresa feel comfortable letting Melanie in on what they do for a living. For a little while, she even collaborates with them on some of their filchings, using her job as a way to pare down potential targets.
Melanie’s entrance does not nudge Kajillionaire into familiar heist-movie antics, as it might in another film with a similar conceit. Instead, it kickstarts something of an awakening for Old Dolio, who, through this unsatisfied but for the most part well-adjusted young woman, realizes how many of life’s pleasures she has missed out on account of being raised by these all-consumingly greedy people. They will call Melanie, but not Old Dolio, “hon’.” When one in-the-works grift finds them inside the house of a lonely, dying old man, who asks his ulteriorly-motivated guests to mimic the afternoon routine of his long-absent family to bring him comfort, it’s a painful reminder to Old Dolio of a mundane pleasure she’s only seen in fiction. “Most happiness comes from dumb things,” Melanie matter-of-factly tells Old Dolio after she eats a pancake for the first time. The tossed-off observation strikes Old Dolio as profound.
Kajillionaire is July’s third movie, and is the first in which she does not star. While assiduously made, and with flashes of memorable perceptiveness, it’s a frustrating film in which you can see logically why certain narrative developments occur but rarely strike you as earned or organic. The film’s best assets are Melanie and Rodriguez’s instantly amiable portrayal of her. She offers the movie’s best lines (like that almost philosophical pancake remark) and acts as its grounding force — the entity to accentuate the Dyneses dysfunction and bring about clarity for Old Dolio.
But we never really believe the movie. The Dynes and any additional information surrounding them feel too fancifully eccentric to be real. Their living inside an office space next to a soap factory whose ceiling is perennially leaking pink bubbles is just one too-absurdly whimsical touch. But, more destructively to the film, Old Dolio herself is too cartoonish to not feel like a movie character. Her upbringing, and what a decades-long lack of love has done to her, generates sympathy, and we do come to like the surprisingly therapeutic relationship she builds with Melanie. But with her fake-deep voice (Wood lowers her timbre down into a goofy Elizabeth Holmesian baritone), yellowy Manson-girl hairstyle, and dispassionate style of dress that accidentally makes her resemble the late Mac Miller, she’s drawn too comically and broadly to feel like a person and not a conglomeration of ideas. She's a Frankenstein’s monster of emotional and social neglect.
When a movie has a plot like Kajillionaire’s, it’s vital, to effectively generate the emotional resonance it’s going for, to write characters that don’t live and die on the page. Aside from Melanie — a creation that reminds us just how astute a writer July can be — the characters are insubstantial. The lack of a real backstory for the Dynes, while likely a pointed choice to impel how unmoored-to-anything nearly every facet of their lives is, only exacerbates their general unrealness. The ending of the movie is tailored to be cheer-inducing — a moment of transcendence subversively taking place in an everyday setting. It’s a breakthrough of something finally “real” for Old Dolio after a lifetime of fake-outs and superficial affection. But this moment, too, feels like a construction.
Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire.
director Miranda July’s new movie, Kajillionaire, this unhealthily co-dependent trio comprises parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) and their bizarrely named daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). The Dynes are scammers — like if the Barrymores traded acting for grifting and they were bad at their specialty. When we first meet them, they’re dangerously low on cash — three months behind on paying their $500-a-month rent for an unused, leaky office space attached to a soap factory. On principle, they refuse to consider conventional jobs to temporarily ameliorate their financial woes. Days are spent stealing from peoples’ mailboxes, tricking bystanders into donating to bogus fundraisers. The payouts are almost always
ysfunctional families are a dime a dozen in the movies. But I can say confidently that I’ve never before met a clan quite like the Dynes. At the heart of writer-
hithouse (2020) is an unappealing title for what is one of the most appealing movies I’ve seen this year. It’s a winsome college-set sort-of romantic comedy ripe for comparisons to the Before Sunrise series
(1995-2013); it’s observant and disarmingly talky, comprising dialogue that feels either overheard and directly copied and pasted from experience. (There’s no way a drawn-out reference to 2005’s 13 Going on 30 could slip into an argument like it does in the movie and not have been culled from a real verbal throwdown.) Shithouse
marks the feature-length directing debut of the remarkably just-23-year-old Cooper Raiff. If his age doesn't
automatically make you feel unaccomplished, know that he also wrote, co-produced, and co-edited the movie. (And not with the mumblecore-ish, elbow-greased roughness expected from a debuting, barely-out-of-college filmmaker whose style feels improvisational and who is working with a small budget, either.)
Raiff is also the star of the movie. He plays Alex, a 19-year-old we surmise is a semi-fictionalized version of his younger self. When we’re introduced to him, at the start of his sixth month of college, Alex still hasn’t yet found his footing. He hasn’t made any friends, and checks in on his mom and sister (Amy Landecker and Olivia Welch) back in Texas near-obsessively. He doesn’t have much else to do. He sort of counts his perpetually under-the-influence roommate (Logan Miller) as a friend, though most of their conversations consist of Alex asking if he needs a bucket. Sometimes he makes conversation with the stuffed animal he’s brought with him — something more wistful than cutesy. A new leaf is seemingly turned in Shithouse when Alex gets to talking with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula). They connect in their dorm’s common space one Friday evening and notice that they like each other.
They’re soon doing the kind of charming walking and talking around town Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy made thrilling back in 1995. In the course of the night, they will also participate in an off-the-cuff softball game with strangers and have a funeral for Maggie’s pet turtle, who died earlier in the morning. Raiff’s and Gelula’s performances have the same spontaneous-feeling charm of their spiritual predecessors. They have an easygoing
rapport; when the night is over, we’re a little sad to see its glimmer of magic dim. Will this turn into something more? Shithouse doesn’t only chronicle this one special night the way Before Sunrise does, though. It wanders
around in the aftermath, during which things do not suddenly become a little more picturesque for Alex than they had before.
However much it flails after its promising breakthrough, the romance pushes him to rethink the way he’s been approaching college life — it’s helped him break his shell just enough. Raiff refreshingly makes both his and Gelula’s characters likable without forgoing the truth that they are 19-year-olds who will at some point say something wrong or act brashly. It’s particularly bracing, in Alex’s case, to see a college boy in a movie be reasonably sensitive and so openly affectionate with his family. It isn’t often that we get a teenage hero who cries multiple times from homesickness and have that be treated with empathy rather than light mockery. Shithouse gives us a happy ending to delight in, but it avoids easy simplicity — it doesn’t go quite where you think it will. More representation of underwhelming, unfulfilling freshman years of college — and more from Raiff, please.