Kajillionaire

Old Dolio, Theresa and Robert crouching to avoid being seen

 

There’s a lot to like in Kajillionaire, apart from the film itself, since what it boils down to is a story of child abuse told in a tone so wilfully whimsical that it’s hoping to sell itself as a comedy.

The abused party is Old Dolio, a bizarre name for a child, daughter of a pair of grifters whose bar is set so low that their regular gig is to steal mail from the post office and just chance to luck that there’s something in there.

The parents don’t see themselves as bottom feeders, more as revolutionaries who have rejected the blandishments of modern capitalism – where everyone wants to be a “kajillionaire” – liberators clinging to some distorted remnant of hippie idealism, maybe.

The regular routine of zealous Robert (Richard Jenkins), cheerleading wife Theresa (Debra Winger) and withdrawn monotone daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is hit by a disruption event in the shape of mile-a-minute showy Puerto Rican Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) whom they meet on a plane as they’re off to pull one of their more spectacular scams – the “lost luggage” con (insurance will pay out up to $1,500) – to cover the rent on their dwelling (an office space regularly invaded by cascades of pink foam leaking from the next-door factory). For reasons that appear to owe everything to plot necessity rather than psychological plausibility, Melanie has soon become a part of their setup.

From here to the finish line it’s a case of immovable object meeting irresisitible force, Melanie disturbing the family’s routine and the relationship between the parents and the child. Old Dolio is actually 26 but dresses like she’s 15 and yearns for pretty things and even the slightest sign of affection from her parents, who view untrammelled emotion as one of the features of the “kajillionaire” mindset.

Melanie – all teeth and rack (her tits almost become a subplot) – is those desires incarnate.

 

Melanie and Old Dolio go shopping
Learning to shop: Melanie and Old Dolio

 

Why is the daughter called Old Dolio? The answer comes towards the end and is a brilliant summation of everything that’s wrong with the parent/child relationship. And I’m not going to ruin it, because though the film is ghastly in some respects, it exerts a certain grip, thanks in large part to Old Dolio’s quest for tenderness, a whisper that grows to a roar.

To hook in a demographic who don’t go for writer/director Miranda July’s whimsy, there’s actors Jenkins, Winger and Wood. All are reliably excellent at the worst of times but all are at their best here – Jenkins the elated loser who secretly knows the game is up, Winger the shuffling wife going along with the grifting because there’s no alternative, but Wood in particular, putting on a display of lunatic physicality that atones for her turn as po-faced robot Dolores in the interminable Westworld.

Gina Rodriguez I’ve not seen before but holds her own against this formidable trio with a performance that makes it almost plausible that Melanie would be hanging out with these three weirdos – loud enough to be taken seriously as a “force”, quiet enough that her motivation doesn’t become apparent, until it suddenly is. Ahaa!

But at bottom it’s a child abuse story. The parents have held this girl in their thrall and made her life a misery since she was born. Layering that with oddball characters, bizarre locations and comic situations might be enough to stop the misery bleeding through for some, but it’s not going to work for everyone. Beneath the pink foam, it’s grim.

 

Kajillionaire – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Down in the Valley

Evan Rachel Wood enjoys the beach while Ed Norton enjoys her

 

Ed Norton continues on his quest to become the new Sean Penn with this very unusual and initially brilliant examination of the cowboy myth and its survival into the modern world. This represents itself in a Bonnie and Clyde love story between Harlan, an itinerant cowpuncher cum gas station attendant (Norton) who immediately quits his job when young and foxy Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) drives in for gas, and heads off to the beach with her. What a free spirit. What we don’t at first know, but soon becomes apparent, is that our Stetson-wearing South Dakotan is a nutjob. But until that is revealed we are treated to the sort of drama that Robert Redford might once have starred in – sun glints off the lens and there’s a cute singer-songwriter with a guitar on the soundtrack. Norton’s hat is an ironical white and so is his horse. He’s a man out of time roaming the San Fernando valley, where the sweep and the scrub of bits of the old west abut new housing developments. And with him periodically rides the girl’s kid brother (Rory Culkin), younger and even more impressionable than the possibly not so dumb girl.

How does the myth of the west fit in to a world driven by other concerns? Can a man like Harlan survive in this different world? Or were men like him an aberration even in the old world, a cometh-the-time/cometh-the-man period that’s now long gone and thank god for that? That’s the direction that writer/director David Jacobson’s film appears to be moseying, but it’s a half-hearted journey and the questions appear to be being raised as much to lend tone rather than to provide answers, or even considerations.

Norton is typically intense as the sad fantasist who isn’t at all the sort of man he’s pretending to be, whose slow cowboy wisdom shtick probably wouldn’t impress anyone other than a 18 year old and her 13-year-old brother. And this is certainly a film for those who like fine actors giving it their best shot. Evan Rachel Wood is a pretty but tough flower as the girl half his age who’s rebelling because it’s in the teenage script. And David Morse is perhaps best of all as her father, the correctional facility officer – a sheriff stand-in – putting things into the film that surely aren’t there on the page, such as that stiff-legged walk of the violent man who’s always aching to punch someone in the face.

For comparison, cowboys in the modern world, look at Midnight Cowboy, or 1998’s The Hi-Lo Country, a pair of imperfect movies for sure, but in style and raggedy tone they’re of a piece with Down in the Valley.

It’s an interesting set-up, propelled by a great cast, but it’s a donut of goodness around the hole of Harlan’s character – if this guy is crazy then this primarily is the story of a delusional man, not a dead-eyed coded assessment of modern America and its accommodation with its own recent myths. Satire, and this is one, is best focused on the strong, not the weak.

 

 

 

Down in the Valley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 December

 

 

Big Daddy dies, 1997

On this day in 1997, the wrestler born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax, England, in 1930, died. Crabtree came from a wrestling family – his father, also named Shirley Crabtree, was a wrestler, as were his nephews Steve and Scott Crabtree (though they both wrestled under the name Valentine). Shirley Crabtree followed his father into the ring in 1952 (the same year that Vince McMahon was creating the WWF brand in the USA). With his 64 inch chest and blond hair, Crabtree became a prominent blue-eye (ie hero type) and won the European Heavyweight Championships twice before retiring in 1966. He returned in 1972 as a heel (ie bad guy) with the character of the Battling Guardsman before returning again in 1974 as Big Daddy, named after the Burl Ives character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Initially Big Daddy was a heel, an image that was reinforced when he formed a tag team with Martin Ruane, the 6ft 11in (2.11m) 685lb (311kg) wrestler known as Giant Haystacks, who would later become his arch rival. By 1977 Crabtree had returned yet again, again as Big Daddy, but this time as a blue-eye who wore a sequinned cape and arrived ringside draped in the national flag to the sound of We Shall Not Be Moved over the sound system. Big Daddy was, as his name suggests, big. This led to an ungainliness in his movements, though Crabtree turned this to his advantage by developing signature movements such as the Big Splash, which involved him dropping his bulky body belly first onto a prostrate opponent – at which point he would encourage the crowd to shout “Easy. Easy”. Big Daddy’s career almost came to an end when he Big Splash-ed Mal “King Kong” Kirk during a bout, and Kirk died (the coroner absolved Crabtree of blame, pointing to Kirk’s serious heart condition). Crabtree took the death personally, but continued wrestling into his 60s, though he became increasingly a static presence, against which lighter, prettier wrestlers would hurl themselves to little effect.

 

 

 

The Wrestler (2008, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

A reminder that Mickey Rourke is an actor who operates outside the pantomime arena, when he wants to, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is all about age, breakdown, decay and the everyday heroics necessary to just keep going. The fact that it stars Rourke, who famously abandoned acting to become a boxer, then returned to movies years later a collagen-lipped beat-up reminder of his former self, makes this film, at some level, the story of Rourke himself. And it’s a heartbreaker, the journey with the small-fry wrestler at the wrong end of his career, a tough guy with a heart of gold, a good word for everybody, a man who’s gone a bit deaf, works on the meat counter (nice touch) at a supermarket where he’s bossed about by a ballbusting dick, whose daughter hates him, whose lap-dancer girlfriend isn’t even really his girlfriend. It’s the insights into the wrestling game that make this film so powerful – the tanning salon, the hair extensions, the growth hormone and the painkillers, the eye-opening and eye-watering use of a staple gun. And Aronofsky and documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot it all arthouse – dark, handheld, grainy, many key scenes are so underlit you have to squint through the mood to work out what’s going on. As for plot – there isn’t much of one, we’re just following Randy “The Ram” Robinson from one indignity to the next, while he fumbles about trying to work out what to do with what’s left of his life now his career is over, or as good as over. Is it a metaphor for the baby boomers, more generally? It can be if you want it to be, though Aronofsky has learnt from some of the excess of earlier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) and plays it straight. He’s blessed to have Rourke, and to have Evan Rachel Wood as the estranged daughter, Marisa Tomei as the girlfriend who isn’t a girlfriend. And to have all those New Jersey locations, looking every bit as busted, chipped and beaten up as The Ram himself. As for Rourke, wait till you hear his “I’m an old broken down piece of meat speech”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Should have been Rourke’s Oscar winner
  • Aronofsky’s best film – yes, better than Black Swan
  • Real insight into to how the theatrical world of wrestling works
  • Bruce Springsteen’s tender title song

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Wrestler – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pretty Persuasion

Elisabeth Harnois and Evan Rachel Wood in Pretty Persuasion

 

 

Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) is a spiteful young wannabe actress and fulltime minx who accuses her teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual harassment… partly for fun, partly to get some acting practice in, mostly for spite. And before you know it there’s a TV news crew camped out on the door, with an overeager reporter (Jane Krakowski) visibly almost aroused as she recounts the allegations. Pretty Persuasion would be a better film if it were a straighter film, or if it had gone all out for dark funnies. But there’s some real gold in this otherwise overstrained satire scraping the crud from the underside of the Bel Air idyll. Wood is remarkable as Kimberly, all hot-bodied, over-sexualised, and a total bitch. And the always reliable Selma Blair is ideal as Livingston’s wife (the scene in which she dances for him in schoolgirl garb is sexy, funny and reveals that the schoolgirl intuited something about her teacher and was pushing at an open door). Underused but very funny is James Woods, scene-stealing in his undercrackers as the sleazy dad more interested in phone sex than his daughter – which is why Kimberly ended up such a piece of work in the first place.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Pretty Persuasion – at Amazon