By Matt Singer
[Photo: Michael Douglas in “King of California,” First Look, 2007]
Michael Douglas won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1988 for his performance in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” Watching his latest film, Mike Cahill’s “King of California,” I got the feeling he’s hungry for another. His character, Charlie, has everything an actor looking to make a big critical splash could want: mental illness, a haunted past, a troubled relationship with a daughter and loud facial hair.
Douglas is good in the part, though I couldn’t help but wonder what his father, Kirk the best of the best when it comes to playing manic intensity would have done in his place. He would have brought a bit more to the part, I think, more gravitas and more craziness. The junior Douglas aims instead for comedy, and though he’s quite funny at times, it doesn’t always work with the emotional core that Cahill seems to have in mind.
Charlie’s freshly out of a mental institution and living with his teenage daughter Miranda, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Miranda’s been living on her own ever since Charlie was committed; mature beyond her years, she dropped out of school and survived by working at McDonald’s. Now Charlie’s back, and he’s not too keen on her working there, although he has no interest in getting a job himself. He’s too busy, you see, trying to find a treasure that he believes Spanish settlers buried centuries ago. After much searching, he determines that the treasure is real and it lies beneath a nearby Costco’s nigh-impregnable concrete floor. As you can imagine, Charlie does not take nigh-impregnable for an answer and enlists a less-and-less skeptical Miranda to help him retrieve the gold.
So is the treasure real? Is Charlie on a quixotic quest or is he simply a mad Quixote tilting at windmills? Cahill plays the answer close to his vest. As Charlie follows his leads from one place to the next, he’s presented with sign after sign that the gold isn’t real. But he always manage to come up with an excuse, a reason that this dead end is in fact just another signpost on the road to wealth and a sort of immortality. The finale of Charlie’s quest is subjective enough to allow for an audience’s interpretation, one that will probably vary depending upon a viewer’s own tolerance for wide-eyed romantics.
I admired Cahill’s sly juxtaposition of the California of Charlie’s imagination, one of yellowing maps and shimmering doubloons, and the California of Charlie’s life, which is littered with chain stores and restaurants and where the most exotic wildlife is found on a carefully landscaped golf course. But speaking personally, there’s only so much forced whimsy I can take. Though it seems were meant to ultimately admire Charlie and his dreams, I most felt sorry for Miranda, who has to clean up after her irresponsible father over and over again. So I wouldn’t give Douglas the Oscar. But I’d go see the movie once.
“King of California” opens in limited release on September 14th (official site).