It's easy to see what attracted Michael Douglas
to the role of Charlie in writer-director Mike Cahill
's whimsical comedy King of California. Charlie is a cuddly, middle-age loony, the kind of screwtop crackpot that Academy voters love. And Douglas wades into the role with all of his might, his grizzly charm coming off like a New Age cross between Henry Travers and David Crosby. Unfortunately, Douglas is hurling all of his oddball ticks and psychotic charms into a vacuum.
King of California is cute, innocent, and precocious, just like the little 10-year-old niece you want to kill. Cahill's film aims to be quirky and quizzical and it has the feel of the kind of anti-establishment films made in the '60s and '70s along the lines of They Might Be Giants or Daddy Douglas' The Lonely Are the Brave. But there is no ballast for the whimsy, and the whole concept wisps away like a leaky balloon full of hot air. Article continues below
Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood
) is a self-reliant seventeen-year-old girl, abandoned by her mother, working to make ends meet at a local Santa Clarita McDonald's. But her prosaic life changes when she picks up her Dad, Charlie, from the Santa Clarita Department of Behavioral Health Facility after a two-year stint there for attempting to kill himself. Immediately, Charlie babbles to Miranda about naked Chinese guys emerging out of the Pacific surf, and Miranda dryly asks, "Don't people go to hospitals to get better?" Soon enough, Charlie manically insists to Miranda that there is buried Spanish treasure hidden underneath the local Costco and enlists her reluctant help into dredging up the doubloons.
Cahill, utilizing the now de rigueur technique of the voice-over narrator, turns his tale into an ephemeral two-character chamber piece. Miranda, as the narrator, quickly moves the tale forward while skirting issues like character development and motivation. The main order of character business is the relationship between Miranda and Charlie, but there is no father-daughter dynamic to explore and develop. Wood plays her role in an almost catatonic state and Douglas is compelled to overcompensate. Cahill takes the sitcom route where the child is the sensible one and the adult is the live-in-the-moment child, but Miranda is a dull cipher and despite Douglas's best efforts, there is simply no spark, no electricity, no chemistry between the two characters. Just dull retorts ("Why don't you call me Dad?").
Given all that, Cahill still could have salvaged the situation by positioning the film as a consumer culture satire. But with product placement abounding in the film (along with Costco and MacDonald's we get visual references to Target, Petco, Chuck E Cheese, a plug for eBay, and one for Applebee's, despite Charlie's arch remark about folks who eat at Applebee's -- "Know why people eat in there? Fear of the unknown. Nothing in there surprises them"), Cahill is not willing to be too critical of this bland, enveloping world of mediocrity represented by the chain stores that dot the contemporary landscape. At one point, Charlie marvels to Miranda about all the homes that have been constructed around their home in the last few years, pointing out that their house used to be in the middle of nowhere. Miranda remarks, "We're still in the middle of nowhere. Just lots more people now." But the comment is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. After all, the hook of the story concerns Spanish booty underneath a Costco, and Cahill even has Charlie compliment a Costco security guard with a line ripe for a television commercial: "You have everything around here!"
In the film, Charlie states, "I've done a lot of things in my life, but maybe I haven't done what I need to do yet. And maybe if I do this I will." I found myself muttering the same words as I made my way through the exit door of the theater staggering through the strip mall in search of a metal detector at Costco.