‘Kajillionaire’ Review: Leaving Your Toxic Work Environment
A sickly pink foam creeps down the wall behind a sad lineup of office cubicles, and to our horror, we learn that this grotesque display is part of the routine – a controlled and scheduled affair. Robert, Theresa, and Old Dolio, played by Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood respectively, have the situation under control. Their stopwatches are synchronized to contain this weeping monstrosity, a max of three times a day – keeping Bubbles, Inc from flooding their living space is a three-person job. This nightmare is just a part of the standard daily grind in Miranda July’s sly satire. “I prefer to just skim,” Robert, the patriarch, proclaims mid-rant lumping together 401ks, sugar, caffeine, and mother-daughter trips as the foolish obsessions of wannabe ‘kajillionaires.’ July’s sleight of hand here is that the con-artist life consuming this family isn’t all that different from everything Robert and Theresa say they despise. After all, turning an office into your home might be the only thing more American than turning your home into your office.
This contortion of the pernicious ‘workplace as family’ mentality, into the altogether dystopian ‘family as a workplace’ variant is at the heart of Kajillionaire. The dynamic is so out of whack that it’s hard to believe Old Dolio (named as part of another grift) when she explains that Robert and Theresa are her actual parents. Their relationship is so antiseptic and professional that this young woman of 26 breaks down in tears from the smallest bit of intimacy from strangers. Every aspect of their life is transactional and devoid of familial affection. This is best exemplified later in the film when in the middle of a con they are forced to role-play an actual family together. Sitting in a strangers’ home, they act out a facsimile of the traditional nuclear family. Sun basks through the windows and soft piano plays while ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ banter about mowing the lawn. Even in this crude pastiche of family life, Old Dolio doesn’t have a chance to play. The second she tries to fit in, the game abruptly ends, and the con continues once more.
Melanie, played by the perpetually problematic Gina Rodriguez, is a stranger who disrupts this workplace by her very presence and serves as our vantage point into this world. Meanwhile, her own far more normalized family dynamic happens to have some very similar problems. Melanie’s overbearing mother may call her often but she’s playing a pastiche of her own – a detached type of parenting mitigated through buying useless junk to send her daughter’s way. July asks us to consider the similarity between these two dysfunctions. For one family, affection is worthless because it lacks economic value, while for the other, affection is only expressed through consumer goods. Both Old Dolio and Melanie are lonely and alienated just in different ways, and what unites the two is the possibility of finding an off-ramp together, to build something new.
This is where Kajillioniare begins to shift its satirical wheels towards an optimism grounded in queerness, the power of coming out, and finding your chosen family. Old Dolio and Melanie see within each other the dream of the deprived affection they need. The film’s climax is an explosive encounter between the two in a dark gas station restroom. Within this moment, July plays her fantastical hand, and fills the pitch-black emptiness of the frame inside with a star-filled sky, the promise of an infinite universe of possibility laid bare at their feet. Yet, while Melanie is ready, Old Dolio panics, and the sheer force of this possible alternative sends shockwaves of fear through her realized by July as an earthquake.
Within the heightened satirical world of Kajillionaire, July maps a very real moment of a person on the cusp of coming out. Despite the initial rejection and fearful response, we witness the seeds being planted, and the door cracking open to the possibility of love and tenderness outside of the limited scope of routine and tradition. Like so many queer folks before her, the liberation comes with a price, and ultimately her decision alienates Old Dolio from her biological family. In turn, however, she finds love, a chosen family, and a severance package to boot.
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