Movies that can be viewed at home this week are a refreshingly female-driven bunch, perhaps perfect for a nation that mourns the loss of one of its great women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Advance viewing of the action movie “Ava” starring Jessica Chastain as an assassin on the run wasn’t available, but I saw three others: ”Kajillionaire,” “The Artist’s Wife” and “Misbehaviour.”
Written and directed by Miranda July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know,” “The Future”), “Kajillionaire” — opening Friday at the Fairfax 6 in Fairfax — doesn’t feature a role for the delightful curly-haired performance artist. Instead, Evan Rachel Wood effectively steps in to fill the lead part.
Wood plays “Old Dolio” — a strange name explained, hilariously, late in the film — the daughter of two small-time thieves and con artists, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger).
Clad in bulky clothes (with room for a helpful Catholic schoolgirl outfit), and with hair that looks like it has never seen a pair of scissors, Old Dolio and her parents spend each day going through a litany of cons, such as stealing mail or trying to return items to stores, to come up with their measly rent.
Their living space, an old office, suffers from a daily spewing of some kind of thick foam from upstairs, which rolls down the walls and must be scraped up and disposed of.
One day, Old Dolio accepts payment from a woman to attend a pregnancy class; there, she becomes obsessed with the idea of mother-child bonding, which she feels she never had.
In one great scene, Old Dolio tries to get a refund for a massage coupon, but must instead take the massage. The masseuse (Da’Vine Joy Randolph from “Dolemite Is My Name”) finds she must keep her hands just above Old Dolio’s rigid back; anything else is “too much pressure.”
Then, the family wins one of the many contests they regularly enter, and prepare for a flight to New York. Old Dolio cooks up a plan to “lose” her luggage and collect enough insurance money to pay their back rent.
On the plane, they meet the sensuous, chatty Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is fascinated by the odd family and befriends them.
Melanie’s arrival, plus Old Dolio’s crisis of conscience, and the coming of “the Big One,” a Los Angeles earthquake that will end everything, upsets the old family dynamic in strange, funny and touching new ways.
As with July’s other films, “Kajillionaire” is almost a romantic comedy, only slightly subverted. The romance is real, but the comedy is very nearly surreal, so strange that it occasionally borders on the queasy.
One key scene takes place in a gas station restroom with a broken light; the voices in the darkness begin to drift as if floating in space.
The film is set in what seems to be the real world — a hazy, nondescript, late-afternoon Los Angeles — and although nothing unrealistic happens, it still moves with a more subconscious, impulse-driven energy than strict logic.
In one scene, the family suddenly decides to buy a hot tub, when no hot tub is mentioned before, and, after its purpose is fulfilled, is never seen again.
The more time one spends in July’s world, the more weirdly charming it becomes. Images such as the rolling foam, or the way the family walks bent over to avoid being seen over a fence by their emotional landlord, are almost Buster Keaton-like.
“Kajillionaire,” even if it works in a roundabout way, finally does have a genuine sweetness that sends you out in a wealth of smiles.
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins
Written and directed by: Miranda July
Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes
Opening Friday at the Roxie’s virtual cinema and on demand here, “The Artist’s Wife” is directed by Tom Dolby, son of the legendary Ray Dolby, the San Francisco inventor of the famous noise-reducing system.
Tom is himself something of a renaissance man, having published novels and produced the movies “Call Me by Your Name” and “Little Men.” His directing debut was 2014’s “Last Weekend,” which, to put it politely, was stiff and dull.
“The Artist’s Wife” fares better. Dolby has learned to loosen up his writing, and his two leads, Lena Olin and Bruce Dern, give classy, emotional performances that carry the material a long way. Even so, it’s still a tad too precious and genteel.
As was “Last Weekend,” this is mostly a soap opera about affluent characters, though this time, Dolby gives them problems normal people might recognize.
Dern plays Richard Smythson, a successful artist who lives in an architectural marvel of a house in East Hampton. He’s struggling with dementia and having trouble painting his newest series.
His wife, Claire (Olin), is his rock. Reacting to Richard’s struggle, she tries to get in contact with Richard’s estranged daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), who has her own problems.
Angela is a newly single mom, raising a son with help from a handsome hired male nanny Danny (Avan Jogia), who is also a musician. She doesn’t particularly care to get back in touch with her much-absent father.
Additionally, Claire has begun painting again herself, but decides to hide her work from her husband.
Because it’s not dissimilar from 2018’s “The Wife,” it’s not difficult to see where “The Artist’s Wife” is going. It gets there with a soft, syrupy piano score by otherwise reliable composer Jeff Grace (“The House of the Devil,” “Meek’s Cutoff”); with Dolby’s pretty compositions; and characters forever posed in front of gorgeous art or architecture.
The dialogue is standard soap stuff, serving the story but rarely feeling lifelike. Dern’s gruff, snarling line readings go a long way in helping to salt things up, as does Olin’s lamp-like presence. Her smile is so full of generosity, it’s hard not to feel the screen glowing. (And it’s not hard to see why Danny would be attracted to her.)
“The Artist’s Wife” is a vast improvement over “Last Weekend,” and it has a few touching moments, but it’s constantly at odds with its own artificiality. It doesn’t quite meet Richard’s requirements of creating art straight from the loins.
The Artist’s Wife
Starring: Lena Olin, Juliet Rylance, Bruce Dern, Avan Jogia
Written by: Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending, Abdi Nazemian
Directed by: Tom Dolby
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Premiering on digital/VOD, Philippa Lowthorpe’s “Misbehaviour” (English spelling, please) tells a perky, polished “inspired by true events” story, tackling it from four angles.
Keira Knightley is perhaps the center, playing Sally Alexander, who lands an emeritus professor of modern history position, hoping to change the system from within, but discovering that men don’t want to hear her opinions even during casual scholarly chit-chat.
She attends a meeting of a women’s liberation group led by Jo (Jessie Buckley), with her sly, sideways grin. It is decided that they will infiltrate the 1970 Miss World competition and protest its unrealistic and unfair portrayal of women.
Meanwhile, the competition has just begun allowing non-white women to compete, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten (Miss Grenada), and Loreece Harrison as Pearl Jansen (Miss Africa South, who, due to politics, competes alongside “Miss South Africa”), have different things to say. If they can provide hope to other young women of color, then the competition is a good thing.
Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) is in charge of the competition, blithely cataloguing the women by their measurements and other physical attributes, arranging and lining them up like cattle.
The competition’s host is none other than Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, not quite pulling the role off as well as he did Bob Crane in Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus”). Years earlier, Hope hosted the competition and had gone home with one of the beauties. He sees the whole thing as an opportunity for his own personal pleasure, though his wife (Lesley Manville) says differently.
These four viewpoints clash in an interesting, lightly humorous way, while largely staying on the surface. Like many comedies, “Misbehaviour” presents a struggling, working-class world with a bright, cheerful gloss so we don’t have to think too hard.
But it remains ambitious enough to offer more than one correct side to a still-pressing issue, and, thankfully, leaves more wiggle room than the standard bathing suit allows.
Starring: Keira Knightley, Greg Kinnear, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Rhys Ifans
Written by: Rebecca Frayn, Gaby Chiappe
Directed by: Philippa Lowthorpe
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes