The good news about “King of California” is that Michael Douglas is playing the father of Evan Rachel Wood and not her potential lover. The bad news about “King of California” is that the father is one of those wacky free spirits who are clearly meant to be roguishly charming and delightful but who turn out to be fairly unendurable instead.Douglas plays Charlie, the kind of guy who spends so much of his time trying to be the most colorful and quirky character around that he has managed to lose his wife, alienate his daughter, Miranda (Wood) and land himself in a mental institution. As the film opens, he is released from the looney bin but when he gets home to the wackily ramshackle house where he and Miranda live (which is located smack-dab in the middle of an otherwise colorless housing development in the first–but sadly not the last–appearance of something that I fear is supposed to be symbolic), he hardly seems to notice that she has had to drop out of high school and get a job flipping burgers to keep them afloat while he was away. Instead, he is more concerned with the ancient writings of a Spanish explorer and the notion that there may be a fortune in gold buried somewhere in the immediate area. At first, Miranda is skeptical and then becomes downright hostile–especially when Charlie sells her beloved car out from under her nose–but before long, she begins to fall under his spell once again and when he calculates that the treasure is parked underneath the local Costco, he convinces her to get a job there so that they can sneak in one night and unearth it.
Although best known for playing slick and morally questionable individuals in films such as “Wall Street” and “Basic Instinct,”, Michael Douglas has occasionally let his hair down to play shaggy goofballs in films such as “Romancing the Stone” and “Wonder Boys” and has acquitted himself quite well in such roles–I would go so far to say that his work in “Wonder Boys” is arguably the high point of his entire career–and his part in “King of California” is definitely in the spirit of those jaunts. The problem here is that while Douglas is clearly having a blast playing a part that couldn’t be more removed from the likes of Gordon Gekko, the material that he is working with is far too cutesy to for even those with a fondness for unadulterated whimsy to be able to stomach for very long. It wants to be a quirky comedy-drama in which the shifts in tone are meant to approximate the way that our lives can go from happy to sad to inexplicable in an instant but writer-director Mike Cahill never quite finds the right tone for any of the individual scenes–the lighter material (including bits of crude animation and a theremin-based score to underline the quirkiness) is too cutesy for its own good and the shifts into more serious matters are too jarring for their own good. (Don’t even get me started on the weird sequence in which Miranda goes undercover at a swinger’s barbecue in order to snag the store’s master key.)“King of California” has its heart in its right place, I suppose, and less demanding audiences might find some enjoyment in its self-consciously quirky attitude. Others, especially those lured into the film by the presence of executive producer Alexander Payne, are likely to find the film as bland and undistinguished as the ordinary suburban existence that its central character stands in opposition to in every scene.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.