(This review also appeared on GreenCine's Guru review blog)
Rating (out of 5): ***
Writer-director Michael Cahill's King of California is a "little film" with a solid script that came and went from theaters in the blink of an eye - not a big surprise, given the oddball plot. While no classic, it certainly deserves an audience on home video.
Michael Douglas plays Charlie, a wayward father and former jazz musician whose estranged, and much more together, teenage daughter Miranda (a most-appealing Evan Rachel Wood) picks him up upon his release from a mental hospital. She's been working at McDonald's instead of finishing high school because someone's got to bring home the McBacon. Her mother, his ex, a former hand model, ran off too. Charlie may have issues, but at least he cares. It doesn't take all that long for Douglas to present his character as a major league eccentric, but to his credit he doesn't overdo it (except for a few wild-eyed moments), and he quickly garners our sympathy for his obvious love of his daughter. The plot - centering on Charlie's obsessive belief that Spanish treasure is buried underneath the local Costco - requires some suspension of disbelief to be sure, and yet Cahill's on to something, too.
Cahill, a novelist turned filmmaker, smartly uses the Weeds-ish setting - Southern California tract house suburbia (namely, the Santa Clarita valley), full of pointless Spanish street names meant to cover up the area's subversive history - to satirize the sameness the rest of their fellow suburbanites display. With that location plus the juxtaposition of Spanish music and Charlie's obsessive quest, the film could even seem a strange cousin to Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way. In that film, also set in Southern California, John Heard's slightly whacked Vietnam vet gets Jeff Bridges to join him on his obsessive mission to prove a millionaire committed murder; here, Charlie's obsession - which Miranda gamely if reluctantly goes along with - is to find buried treasure, 17th Century Spanish doubloons, in the 'burbs. She reads the journals and books he shoves at her, about the Spanish missionary who may or may not have buried the treasure (Cahill even mixes things up a bit by using cut-out animation to tell the Spaniard story). There's just enough evidence that she begins to believe him, even as his quest teeters more and more on the criminal.
Wood's VO narration seems an unnecessary contrivance to explain backstory but the flashbacks to her eccentric, damaged childhood work well in quick bursts to explain their relationship. There are other moments that strain credulity, including Charlie's relationship with a local policewoman, but many surprising little touches add a layer to the film: the wild cat that pops into their kitchen one night to feast off dirty dishes; Charlie watching moths hover at a porch light while he plays the bass dreamily.
Douglas sports a Cervantes-ish mustache and beard; all he needs is a Conquistador's helmet, which he basically gives himself later in the film when he wears his sweatshirt's pointy hood atop his head -- then the look is complete. But his performance is superb. Charlie's obsession is painted humorously, as Miranda gamely trudges along with him, father and daughter. It's when the story slows the hunt down a bit that it becomes more touching, as Miranda makes Charlie realize what he's been missing. He slowly starts acting more like a "dad" to the precocious daughter.
I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending logically but found it rather touching. King of California is by no means a perfect film, but it deserved a better fate than being buried - like treasure. Sweet and bittersweet.