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King of California (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

King of California


Starring Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber, Kathleen Wilhoite, Anne L. Nathan, Arthur Santiago, Ashley Greene, Ian Hopps, Anna Khaja, Will Rothhaar, Annie O’Donnell, Greg Davis Jr. and Jeanie Hackett.

Screenplay by Mike Cahill.

Directed by Mike Cahill.

Distributed by First Look Pictures. 93 minutes. Rated PG-13.

It’s always nice when Michael Douglas breaks out of the clichéd “powerful-professional-in-danger-due-to-his-own-weaknesses” mold that he falls back on a little too easily and regularly.

Well there is nothing regular about King of California. Not that normalcy is any great shakes, as Charlie – the main character here – would undoubtedly point out.

Douglas is playing Charlie as one of his less-common eccentric scruffy roles, complete with a bushy-Grizzly-Adams beard that looks like a gray porcupine fell asleep on his face.

In fact, the character, storyline and script are so willfully unpredictable that you want to enjoy King of California more than you actually do. It is a clever and charming trifle, but there is the slight residue of squandered opportunity to the proceedings.

King of California was written and directed by Mike Cahill, a protégée of Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) who shares his mentor’s unusual world view and style. (Payne is one of the film’s producers.) However, somehow it is harder to work up any real passion or empathy for these damaged and quirky characters and their Quixotic quests than it is in Payne’s films.

Perhaps it is simply that these characters have a much more specific goal – one that may be literally more valuable but is figuratively colder and much shallower. Payne’s anti-heroes are on trips of self-discovery. These characters are looking for lost treasure.

Yes, the film tries to suggest that they discover themselves through their mutual adventures – in fact, Charlie insists he is not in it for the money, but for the experience – but it still feels like a bit of a rationalization.

Then again, it seems like Charlie is all about rationalization. As King of California begins, he is being released after two years in a mental hospital. He returns home to his teenaged daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been caring for herself on her own by quitting school and getting a minimum wage job at McDonalds.

When Charlie starts insisting that he has figured out how to find a lost Spanish treasure from the 1600s, Miranda is torn. She likes seeing Charlie excited and having a purpose, yet at the same time she knows he is often delusional and always thoughtlessly self-centered.

Wood is one of the finest young actresses on the scene and easily holds the screen against Douglas as confidently as she has with other acting powerhouses like Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Annette Bening, Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Joan Allen and Edward Norton.

Somehow King of California kept reminding me of Douglas’ better-realized quirky comedy/drama Wonder Boys – though the movies are really not very alike. Here the comic moments and relationships don’t flow as naturally from the plotline as they did there.

However, it’s probably unfair to compare King of California to better films that it followed. This film, in its imperfect way, is entertaining on its own.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: February 2, 2008.

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