Bristling with a beard and a madman’s joie de vivre, Michael Douglas brings as much twisted personality to “King of California” as he has to anything since “Wall Street” — which should help make this Mike Cahill-helmed and written, cockeyed comedy a solid hit among the adult and the adult-minded. The only thing dragging down Cahill’s Don Quixote-on-the-West Coast fable — which boasts an eccentric tone, properly whimsical music and problematic father-daughter story — is the daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, who flatlines through most of the movie. Douglas, however, is a manic joy, and Wood manages to hang on for the ride.
Produced by the “Sideways” team of Alexander Payne and Michael London, “King of California” is far broader and plot-driven than that earlier Payne-helmed film, but taps into a similarly sophisticated sensibility. The characters are fractured — Charlie (Douglas) is an intermittent mental patient who is leaving a county facility at the outset of the film; Miranda (Wood) is his long-suffering daughter, abandoned by her mother and working at McDonald’s.
As if Miranda didn’t have enough problems, her faux-Prospero father decides the long-lost treasure of a 17th Century Spanish adventurer is hidden near their ramshackle suburban home. Armed with various tools of the prospecting trade — a map, books, a shovel and, eventually, a backhoe and a scuba-diving suit — Charlie sets out in search of gold, dragging the reluctant Miranda along behind.
The latest in a long line of magical movie crazies, Charlie is an actor’s dream — he’s lovable, nuts, young enough to be sexy, old enough to be forgiven, and can’t be held responsible for anything. Douglas eats it up, his Charlie relishing life in general, and especially the way the sober Miranda reacts to his eccentricities.
A dreamy tone, underlined by David Robbins’ banjo-and-ukulele-driven, old-timey blues score, adds the right lighthearted accent, especially given Wood’s dour performance.
It takes a while for “King of California” to get in a groove, with Charlie showing that given the right attitude, people can get away with almost anything.
When he traces the location of his not-entirely-mythical treasure to the underside of a Costco’s store, puts on a red road-construction vest and starts surveying the place, his sense of entitlement has store employees helping him invade their own space.
His antics mortify poor Miranda, but the sense of absurdity with which Cahill walks Charlie through his adventure should tickle anyone who finds our humorless, security-obsessed public life something less than joyous.
Production values are top-notch. James Whitaker’s cinematography, particularly his night-shooting, is superb.