Most directors don’t get to work with actors like Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood on their first foray into the film world. But then most directors don’t have established friendships with Alexander Payne. And most directors haven’t written a script as quirky and endearing as Mike Cahill’s King of California; a script Payne loved so much that he eagerly signed on to serve as producer for his friend’s first film.
Following the blissfully haphazard escapades of recently released mental patient Charlie (a gleeful and uninhibited Douglas) and his reluctant but accepting daughter Miranda (the supremely talented Wood), King of California declares “You’ve got to believe in treasure to find it.” The catchphrase is catchy (if a bit cliche), while the “treasure” refers to both the physical gold that Charlie and Miranda hunt for and the interior grandness of their father/daughter relationship that grows throughout the film.
While Michael Douglas is in rare form here as a sort of modern day Don Quixote, charging after the nearest windmill (or PetCo parking lot), Evan Rachel Wood excellently embodies his earthbound foil, in the form of an aged-beyond-her-years teen. Charlie pushes the boundaries of reality and Miranda strives to pull him back. In one memorable exchange, Miranda asserts that Charlie doesn’t take the world seriously. “Well look at the world,” he retorts in his typical happy-go-lucky manner. Her response is perhaps the most telling line of the film: “I do Charlie, but unlike you, I have to live in it.”
This seems to be the central theme of the film. In a once wide-open California that is now covered with big-box stores (their treasure is supposedly buried beneath the local Costco) what becomes of the American sense of exploration and wonder? A subdivision is encroaching on their once lonely country house and a third mortgage won’t keep the house in their possession. Perhaps searching for treasure in this day and age is a foolish waste of time, or perhaps it’s the last sense of hope this family has to hang on to.
Mike Cahill’s script never appears to be pushing a message, which is precisely what makes whatever message viewers take away that much more enjoyable. By the end, audiences will have written Charlie off as a loon who is endangering his daughter’s future or will root for his success in discovering the long-lost treasure of his dreams. The decision is left to the viewer, though Cahill does give a few subtle pushes in the latter direction.
Zach’s Rating: B
Perfect For: Any fan of Alexander Payne, or a good, old-fashioned adventure movie
Stay Away if: Quirky characters and unpredictable scripts belong in film festivals, not on your tv