King of California

King of California

Michael Douglas is clearly up to no good.

(First Look) Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber, Kathleen Wilhoite, Anne Nathan. Directed by Mike Cahill

Don Quixote tilted at windmills and searched for the perfect woman, and for his troubles was labeled insane. Even today, those who search for the impossible dream are often considered lunatics and are treated as such.

Miranda (Wood) has a fairly atypical and comfortable existence. She’s managed to fool the authorities and her estranged family into thinking that she’s living with relatives. The truth is that the teenaged girl is living alone in her family home, her mother long since deceased and her father Charlie (Douglas), an ex-jazz musician, is spending his days at his new address in a local mental institution.

One day however, Charlie is released from the nuthatch and she is forced to deal with him again. He has a peculiar gleam in his eyes and an appetite for things that makes her think he’s up to something. He denies it at first, claiming he’s just going for a job interview at a local Applebee’s.

Except that he’s not. He is, in fact, up to Something and it is not in error that I capitalize. Using the internet for research, he has locked into the idea that a Spanish conquistador once buried a treasure full of gold in the Santa Clarita valley, where the two of them live. He is positively giddy with the idea.

Miranda doesn’t have time for the lunacy, at least not at first. Their ramshackle house, virtually falling apart around them, is theirs only by the skin of her teeth. She is working double shifts and overtime at McDonald’s to make ends meet. She has managed to purchase a car – nay, a hunk of junk that runs by the grace of God – and it is her pride and joy. It is the one tangible proof that she has accomplished anything in life.

Soon, Charlie’s quest, like Don Quixote before him, overruns her life and begins to take it over. He discerns, using the translated maps and adjusting for the terrain changes in the intervening years that the gold is buried beneath a palate of toys and a slab of concrete at the local Costco. He hatches a plot to go retrieve the treasure, but is there really anything there or is this just a product of Charlie’s mental illness?

This movie came and went on a limited release and now is getting a bit of airtime on cable. The allusions to Cervantes’ iconic character aren’t lost on Michael Douglas, who plays Charlie with a wild, unkempt beard (making him look oddly Spanish) and a gleam in his eyes that could be madness or could be Gordon Gekko messin’ with ya. It’s been years since we’ve seen Douglas perform as well as he does here, having mostly done mediocre supporting roles in forgettable comedies recently. This is certainly a comedic role, but Douglas plays him in a sympathetic vein, making it very easy to root for the clearly unbalanced Charlie, even though we know he’s probably out to lunch.

Against this backdrop we have Evan Rachel Wood, a competent actress in her own right and she makes the best of a thankless role. Although she narrates the film, still the movie is Charlie’s and it is him you will remember from the movie, which is the way the filmmakers want it. Wood is no Dulcinea here – she’s far too worldly for that – but she plays the role as a girl wise beyond her years. Miranda humors Charlie mainly to give him something to do at first, but eventually she buys into his madness. It is charming to watch, and some of the later scenes in the movie are some of the best Wood has ever done.

The difficulty here is in balancing the story with the impulse to over-emphasize Charlie’s quirks, an impulse Cahill fails to resist. At times, Charlie’s screwloose charm dominates the movie overly much, making it nearly impossible to follow the story because the movie stops dead in its tracks in those instances. Still, for the most part, it moves nicely at a pace that isn’t too fast which might irritate those of the post-MTV generation who don’t like staring at the same shot for more than five seconds.

The story doesn’t really mine any new territory, and that’s okay. What matters here is that the movie’s point about the mind-numbing blandness of modern suburban life is well-taken and well-illustrated here. Few of Costco’s customers notice the wild-looking man pacing about Costco with a metal detector, all lost in their own banal nightmare. Charlie is a spark of life in an ocean of conformity, one who embraces life and seeks out adventure even when such acts are frowned upon and thought insane. One wonders if perhaps Charlie is the only sane one of all those living in a colorless world of interchangeability in which people all over the country in cities and suburbs identical to this one buy the same products in the same stores and eat at the same restaurants afterwards. If Charlie’s insane, then commit me now. I’d rather live in his world than in the other.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas gives one of his best performances in years. The film pointedly illustrates how bland, banal and interchangeable modern suburban/city life is.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie sometimes goes a bit overboard with the quirkiness. No new territory is really mined here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of off-color language and references to past drug use but the kicker here is the portrayal of mental illness. More mature kids might be okay with this, but certainly fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed in a working Costco during the nighttime hours when the store is normally closed. A cash register was kept open so that the crew could make purchases during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This carries with it one of the strongest audio commentary tracks you are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended for that alone.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

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