The first joke in Miranda July's deeply wonky heist comedy Kajillionaire is that nobody on screen remotely resembles a person of means. The best joke is that its characters are con persons with no confidence. Meet the Dynes, a cash-strapped clan of gleaners who live behind a foam-production business in L.A. - welcome once again to July country - from where they sporadically scuttle to undertake the scams that keep them going. Defined immediately by the state (and I do mean state) of their hair, they are, in descending age, flustered patriarch Robert (Richard Jenkins, sidehair tufted up amusingly at the ear), his weary wife Theresa (Debra Winger, sporting the tiredest locks you'll see on any American actress this year) and their uptight daughter, who goes by the name of Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, long and straggly). We get a feel for just how makeshift and hand-to-mouth this existence is when they win a trip to New York. July shows the three flying out, and swiping those items their fellow passengers have left behind upon disembarking; then - with no budget to go any further, and half an eye on a lost-luggage grift - they sit for several hours in the airport car park, gazing at the distant Manhattan skyline and sampling the fruits of their bicoastal foraging, before turning round and flying directly back. What's key is who they run into on this trip. The return journey allocates Richard and Theresa an especially chatty seatmate in Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who doesn't appear notably better off than her travelling companions, except that she's far more secure in herself; unlike the Dynes, she doesn't have to contort her body to avoid creditors, or walk as if the ground beneath her feet is about to swallow her up. She is, in short, the dose of warming Californian sunshine the family direly needs - either to help them make their millions, or simply to get them the conditioning treatment their sorry scalps are crying out for.
It's a funny meet-cute, and for a while, it generates a film that seems especially attuned to the moment: a gentle diversion for a time when all but an elite few are struggling to survive. Melanie namedrops Ocean's 11 as she's taken under the Dynes' wing and coached in the art of the low-level sting, but the family's targets aren't the inaccessible rich, rather old men and women in varying states of befuddlement. (Somewhere in here, July is acknowledging we're at the point where Western economies are setting underdog against underdog.) The small miracle of Kajillionaire's first half is that these predations don't turn us off the characters; the writing, playing and direction offsets their swindles with a disarming mix of eccentricity and empathy. The Dynes have conscience enough to play out the roles of a long-estranged family for one codger as he lies on his deathbed; and we sense - not least from Old Dolio's uncharacteristically enthusiastic attendance of a Positive Parenting class - that these folks are doing what they do in the hope of someday leading a regular life. (They're dreamers, of a sort.)
Alas, there comes a point where July clearly absconded with the fairies, facilitated by the Annapurna beancounters. This is a film with major second-half tail-off; you may start to wish the money had run out on everybody around the hour mark. It's a script problem, first of all: the Dynes are far more compelling as a lopsided family unit than they are when Melanie gets between Old Dolio and her parents, at which point Kajillionaire devolves into an oddball sleepover. But it's a personnel problem, too. Rodriguez, better served by TV (Jane the Virgin) than she has been by the movies, gets a fine showcase for her sunny charms, but it's a perverse film that leaves the Jenkins-Weaver pairing behind to pursue Wood on this form. The actress is convincingly clenched, yes - Old Dolio seems weighed down by having to wear all her clothes at once, bracing herself for another quick-change routine - but she's increasingly effortful and mannered, squishing the light comedy that once made Kajillionaire so fun. What's left behind drifts indifferently into territory that's neither comic nor dramatic, leaving a film that started out displaying such generosity clinging to a thin pocketful of quirks.
Kajillionaire streams on the BFI Player tonight as part of the 2020 London Film Festival, before opening in selected cinemas from Friday.