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Sundance 2020: Kajillionaire, Dick Johnson is Dead

As one might have guessed, the new film from writer/director Miranda July is a mighty strange affair, orchestrated as a funhouse mirror reflecting on real life. “Kajillionaire” is essentially July’s take on family dynamics, observing a mother, father, and daughter, and what each of them bring to the table. July has a handful of bizarre and heartfelt scenes, but when the film breaks from its narrative course to make more grandiose statements about its prevalent ideas, it feels like it has started speaking in another language. 

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July reflects on these values by presenting the Dyne family, a trio of grimy outsiders who have got it all wrong: Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), Robert (Richard Jenkins), and Theresa (Debra Winger) are all grifters, who are more like a team than the dynamic of parent and child. Old Dolio does the hard work (like reaching into a PO box and stealing whatever is in a neighboring one), and yet always splits the findings three ways with her parents. The life is like a non-sustainable rebuke to capitalism, given that they all sleep in a dilapidated office building that’s cluttered with cubicles, and multiple times a day its walls are covered in a pink foam that leaks in from the bubble factory next door. On top of this, Robert is a true paranoid person, and is cripplingly disturbed by the idea of an earthquake that will one day come and kill them all. 

This family is smart and relatively slick—with no threat of cops in sight—and their grifts somehow keep them from total nothingness. That same ambling quality comes in the performances, which are made to make them look alarming, but also a bit tragic. They’re an essential part of July’s world-building, which mixes disheveled people with the brightness of California sun. They have a deadpan freakishness that is intentionally funny, and if you squint really hard it sometimes plays like a tried-and-true, quirky Sundance comedy (there were some big laughs from the audience at the world premiere on Saturday night). 

Wood, Jenkins, and Winger have strong chemistry as a trio of people you couldn’t mistake looks like a family. This is Wood’s showcase, however, and she gives a performance that’s massive with its physicality, all meant to counter the tense quietness of her character—she speaks soft in a lower-timbre voice, while her arms swing as her eyes often point downward. Old Dolio becomes like the straight woman to the movie’s strange grift scenarios. And while it can be hard to see what she’s thinking, Wood makes her a mystery that stands out, among an already tricky film. 

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No one speaks like a so-called normal person in this movie, or acts like one, sometimes to faults that stretch the film's already casual bizarreness. That includes Gina Rodriguez when she suddenly enters the picture as Melanie, who is immediately excited, perhaps too conveniently, about the idea of helping the Dyne family grift. She encourages the trio to take advantage of the clients she has from a glasses store, and the family jumps on the opp. Rodriguez steals a few scenes, especially as a strong juxtaposition to Old Dolio when then they start a new contentious relationship. 

The addition of Melanie becomes an opportunity to stray from the kind of plot you might think you'd get with grifters at the center, and to study her out-of-this-world characters, themes, and to push everyone's odd impulses. It's a hard shift that leads to mixed results, and scenes that continually warp the overall meaningfulness of what she's trying to say. 

For example, during one scene, the family (and Melanie) take the offer of “make yourself at home” to a literal extreme, at the request of an old man who is trying to pass away in his room bed (paraphrasing his words). He does not know that Robert is looking for his checkbook so that he can forge his signature; he'd rather feel the comfort of a family, even if it's fake. It’s a sweet moment seemingly inspired by what comprises a happy home—the dying man requests more clanging of silverware, completely at ease. But like a cut to black that lasts for a minute and then turns into the stars, it’s a flourish of July’s artistic abandon that’s memorable and curious visually, but opaque on an emotional level. 

Kirsten Johnson’s documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead” finds a filmmaker trying to prepare for a great loss by documenting every step of her father’s last years, while letting her darkly comic imagination run wild. Her dad Dick, a psychiatrist, is losing his memory and has already had double-bypass surgery. One day soon, he will die. But wouldn’t it help the process (and be kind of funny, both the father and daughter wonder), if we could see him die in gruesome ways? In Johnson’s magical grappling of an experience that can readily have all of life’s colors sucked out of it, death offers a form of comic relief. 

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During her previous film, “Cameraperson,” Johnson invited us into the way that she sees the world, pooling her footage from decades of her life’s work as a documentary cinematographer. Here, she welcomes viewers into the attitude behind her creativity and her vital sense of humor. You can tell within seconds of meeting Dick Johnson that she got it from her father, like when he smiles and laughs after saying, “You can euthanize me.” Johnson captures this moment among others with her candid footage, which shows Dick retiring, moving in with Kirsten, and gradually accepting that his mind and his body are not what they used to be. 

It’s not all death for Dick, however—Johnson also stages some elaborate dreamy sequences (with the location title card calling it “Heaven”), where a person with his mask dances. And because Dick has always been self-conscious about his feet, Kirsten gives him a new pair of feet (courtesy of Jesus). These passages are indulgent in the best way, and create a brightness for the film and prove invaluable when Dick’s course of events are less joyful. 

While taking people through the process, Johnson remains dedicated to transparency—she’s not interested in the artifice that comes in the filmmaking, and it makes the story even more personal. Before you get too swept up in her thoughtful voiceover, she suddenly cuts to her in a closet, recording into an iPhone. And every time she abruptly cuts to a Dick death scene (BOOM! An air conditioner just fell on his head), the movie shows us the film set, the Dick stunt doubles, and Kirsten directing all of it. 

The film is not just about having these images of Johnson, but the process of it—so much that it leaves you wondering if there’s more to be said about how these experimental recreations draw different lines of sensitivity for Kirsten and Dick. In one moment, Dick seems to express discomfort with one sequence that involves him getting splattered with blood; he says it’s because of the cold, but his slowly changing attitude might be hinting at something else. After all, one of them is dying. 

Johnson managed to seemingly bottle up the whole world in her masterwork “Cameraperson,” and now builds upon her creativity with another tactic that contains all of life—comedy. With “Dick Johnson is Dead,” she’s engineered a gorgeous blend of truth and fiction, with a guiding sense of humor that allows her film to always be honest and hilarious. In Johnson’s eyes, the sad and the funny are as distant from each other as one simple, abrupt cut. 

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