Michael Douglas is crazy (like a fox!) and lookin’ for gold in “King of California,” the debut feature from writer-director Mike Cahill. Cahill’s a novelist who also happens to be friends with “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” auteur Alexander Payne–and just in case you miss Payne’s producer credit here, Cahill imitates his pal’s style, employing a voiceover throughout and “Election“-like freeze-frames in its opening sequence. The movie begins in medias res, as long-suffering Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) breaks into a Costco with her emotionally unstable father Charlie (Douglas, looking vaguely like the Unabomber).
A few minutes later, “King of California” flashes back for its first two acts before returning to the Costco for its conclusion, a superfluous achronological device that ten years ago might have passed as “clever” and markedly “indie.”
“King of California” is a family melodrama masquerading as a treasure hunt–or is it the other way around?–with Miranda playing the heavy to her bipolar father, just out of a mental hospital. Through a convoluted set of contrivances (elaborated in Wood’s voiceover), Miranda, though a minor, lives alone and earns her keep at the local McDonalds. Charlie’s re-arrival does nothing to ease her burden: it turns out that Charlie, who was hospitalized after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, is a lousy father–and worst of all, he never washes his dishes.
Meanwhile, during his years in the institution, Charlie cooked up a theory about gold treasure tucked away centuries ago by Spanish explorer Father Juan Florismarte Garces. Against her better judgment, Miranda gets swept up in Charlie’s antics, and together they trace the hidden treasure to the site of a local Costco. Miranda gets a job there, and after a fairly disgusting (and slightly mean-spirited) set piece involving the Costco manager, his wife, shirtless overweight people, and a beach house, she and Charlie set off on their late-night breaking and entering-cum-gold coin excavation. It’s “A Woman Under the Influence” meets “The Goonies,” but not half as good as that sounds.
The relationship between Miranda and Charlie borders on endearing, but it comes at the expense of any serious depiction of Charlie’s psychological instability, which seems like more of an annoyance than anything else (dirty dishes make Evan Rachel Wood so MAD!). Miranda is aware of the depths of Charlie’s illness, but she chooses to be his enabler anyway; she needs to believe in her father, for his sake as well as for hers. Cahill spends the whole film setting this conflict up only to deflate it with the most preposterous and dishonest conclusion possible (warning: here be spoilers): maybe she’s not enabling after all. Maybe she should just listen when her troubled father starts ranting about naked Chinese swimmers and buried treasures, and then decides to dive headfirst into what seems to be raw sewage–or according to him the remnant of a once-glorious river containing unimaginable riches. Maybe he’s right about everything–and I do mean everything–and maybe, if she just has a little faith and looks past the obvious evidence of mental illness, she might never again have to wash a dish by hand.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.]