- Written and directed by Miranda July
- Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins
- Classification R; 106 minutes
- The Last Shift
- Written and directed by Andrew Cohn
- Starring Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie and Ed O’Neill
- Classification R; 90 minutes
Film critics and discerning moviegoers: We are now in a classic Monkey Paw situation. For the past few years, we all wished for more thoughtful mid-budget adult dramas to open in movie theatres and fewer intellectual-property-driven franchise blockbusters. Well, thanks to the pandemic, our wish was granted: Big-budget spectaculars like Wonder Woman 1984 and Top Gun: Maverick are now staying clear of the big screen until the COVID-19 coast is clear(er), while studios instead fill their release calendars with smaller movies that can afford to fail, should no one show up.
Which is exactly what’s happening to low-stakes and generally excellent fare such as The Nest, The Personal History of David Copperfield and The Broken Hearts Gallery – all “now playing,” though good luck if you can find someone who has taken cinemas up on the offer. I’ve always wanted these kinds of original films to receive as marquee a multiplex placement as the latest Avengers or Jurassic Park adventure. But not like this. Not like this.
So while I sincerely hope that Kajillionaire and The Last Shift, this weekend’s fresh sacrifices to the gods of theatrical exhibition, will somehow reverse course and make millions, I’m skeptical. Which is both good and bad news for fans of Richard Jenkins, who happens to star in both.
The long-time character actor, who got a boost in 2009 thanks to his Oscar nomination for The Visitor and another in 2018 for The Shape of Water, is easily one of the most prolific performers of his generation, and for good reason. With his unassuming frame and inscrutable face, the 73-year-old can easily play the sleaze (Killing Them Softly, The Cabin in the Woods), the confidant (Eat Pray Love), the doofus (Burn After Reading) or the blowhard (Step Brothers). Slightly hunched, he exudes a profound air of quiet desperation (Olive Kitteridge). A simple spinal adjustment later, he’s the stern patriarch (Six Feet Under). Jenkins excels at playing the man you would underestimate most, until it’s too late. He’s kind, but capable of cruelty. He is anything and anyone you require him to be, and you get the sense that he’s just happy to be in a position to oblige such directorial desires.
Any chance, then, that we get to talk about Richard Jenkins is a good thing. Even more so when his films are as thoughtful and interesting – if radically different from one another – as Kajillionaire and The Last Shift.
The former title is the knottier, wilder of the two. Written and directed by Miranda July, the multi-hyphenate artist whose films have included a monologuing cat (The Future) and the emoticon “))<>((” intended to convey the concept of “pooping back and forth forever” (Me and You and Everyone We Know), Kajillionaire is an up-and-down, semi-abstract look at the disease of capitalism, the lie of family and the terror of intimacy. It would be tempting to label July, and her new film, quirky, were it not for the fact that she’d probably and rightfully hunt me down, gut me and turn the murder into a piece of performance art. Kajillionaire is certainly not operating on a familiar wavelength, but it is also more than, say, Wes Anderson cosplay. In its quizzical, candy-coloured, sideways view of the world – one that normalizes apartments that regularly flood with pink sludge – the film is offering a challenge to its audience. Accept it, or move along.
Mostly, July’s gambit works. She introduces an odd family of low-rent grifters – Robert (Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and their daughter, straight-facedly named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) – and throws them into a Los Angeles both familiar and slightly off. The entire clan is deliberately upsetting to watch and to listen to, especially as they concoct increasingly ludicrous and then simply cruel schemes. Yet July manages to find little nubs of humanity in each family member, which are then magnified after an outsider (Gina Rodriguez) wriggles her way into their circle.
From a performer’s view, Kajillionaire is Wood’s show. With her flattened waist-long hair, baggy clothes and emotionally detached air of indifference, Old Dolio is a character who is hard to shake and even harder to relate to. Yet Wood finds a way to bolt her, and July’s increasingly unstable story, firmly to the ground.
Which isn’t to say that Jenkins fades into the background. Thanks to some aw-shucks typecasting post-The Visitor, the actor rarely gets to play the villain any more. But here Jenkins is given free rein by July to create a man of pure callousness and fear. He controls his wife and daughter not because he’s scared of what the world might do to them outside his protective bubble but because he’s terrified of what will happen to him once they realize he is simply holding them back. Such a role requires a deft juggling of paternal authority and self-centredness, all of it delivered quietly, without words. July surely knows that Jenkins can handle the task handily, and he doesn’t disappoint.
The Last Shift is not nearly as challenging a production, both for Jenkins and audiences, but it is highly watchable. Playing Stanley, a fast-food worker intent on hanging up his apron after three decades of low-paying grunt work, Jenkins turns a sad-sack schlub into someone more complicated and messy.
There is easy sympathy to be found in Stanley’s plight – the man has been flipping burgers his entire adult life, with nary a thank you to be had – but Jenkins gives his character an edge, too. There is disappointment in Stanley’s voice, but also venom. Here is a man who was promised everything, did nothing, yet still expects the universe to reward him.
Writer-director Andrew Cohn underlines his film’s themes too boldly at times. For instance, the script could have done away with Stanley’s old high-school pal played by Ed O’Neill, as it only affords Cohn a chance to verbalize what Jenkins could have accomplished silently. Yet as Stanley’s world gets more complicated thanks to the arrival of his night-shift replacement, a freshly paroled single father named Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), Cohn’s drama grinds along nicely with unexpected tension. As much as Stanley wants to believe in binaries – good honest work versus cheating, respect versus irresponsibility – Cohn’s low-key narrative undercuts such disingenuous naiveté. Combine that with Jenkins’s slow-burn performance, and you have a film that speaks to, rather than talks down to, its audience.
As to whether those audiences will show up at the cinema? Probably not. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Weekend of Richard Jenkins will save us all. There are few other actors up to the challenge.
Kajillionaire and The Last Shift both open in select Canadian theatres Sept. 25
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