Every year there’s the annual hyped indie film, that darling of the art house that’s praised by critics and followed everywhere with award buzz. Sometimes they’re spot on, as with last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. Other times they’re way off the mark, as with Alexander Payne’s inexplicably puffed up Sideways (2004). First-time director—and occasional novelist—Mike Cahill’s King of California is not this movie for 2007. It has mostly flown under the radar, which is to the film’s fullest benefit. Viewed simply for what it is—a quirky, surprisingly sweet little comedy that’s nothing new under the sun—the film works simply because it isn’t shackled by the extra weight of buildup and expectations.
It’s no coincidence that Payne acts as the film’s producer, since King of California shares a good bit of the feel of Payne’s directorial work. Cahill’s film diverges, however, in its humanity. Unlike Payne’s Sideways or Election (1999), there is a genuine likeability to the characters. Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) plays Miranda, a 16-year-old McDonald’s employee whose bipolar father Charlie (Michael Douglas) has just been released from the mental institute he’s resided in for the past two years after a suicide attempt. It’s immediately obvious to Miranda that Charlie still isn’t all there, as he begins prattling on about lost Spanish doubloons, using the diary of a long-dead Spanish priest in an attempt to track the gold down. After some searching, Charlie claims that the gold is now buried seven feet below a Costco, and it’s up to father and daughter to figure out a way to get it out.
The crux of the film is the relationship between Charlie and Miranda. It’s obvious that Miranda doesn’t buy Charlie’s belief in hidden treasure, but she still tags along because he’s her father, as irresponsible and harebrained as he is. It shows our desire to believe in and be loyal to our parents, no matter how screwed up they may be. Douglas is in rare form as the wild-eyed overzealous Charlie. I call it “rare” simply because he isn’t playing his usual Michael Douglas role: Think Wall Street (1987) or Basic Instinct (1992), or just about anything that’s not Wonder Boys (2000). Wood, after Across the Universe and Running with Scissors (2006), continues to build on a promising young career. Douglas and Wood get the vast majority of screen time, and it’s for the best, since the two show a genuine chemistry as father and daughter.
For the majority of these quaint little indie flicks, there’s an inherent, overwhelming need to be quirky that usually ends up undermining the film. And while King of California has its fair share of quirkiness, it’s done in the right way, mostly used as window dressing. The film also refuses to handle mental illness in the usual magical, romanticized way so beloved of Hollywood films, and instead shows the problems it causes not just for the afflicted, but also for their loved ones. King of California isn’t going to change anyone’s perceptions of film, but there are definitely far worse times to be had in a movie theater. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, mature thematic elements and brief drug references.