King of California Review
By Joe Lozito
Watching "King of California" - the debut film from writer-director Mike Cahill - it helps to be familiar with the term "movie crazy". No, I'm not talking about someone who's crazy about movies (like, say, myself). "Movie crazy" is a type of mental deficiency shown in films where the lead character - in this case Michael Douglas' criminally delinquent absentee father - has lost his grip on reality but, really, he understands it so much better than the rest of us slaves to sanity. If only we could see the world the way he does, we'd be so much more enlightened. It's been known to work (in films like "Being There" and "Harvey"), but more often than not it's played to the affected hilt ("I Am Sam", "Nell", "Reign Over Me"
). "King of California" is somewhere in between. It's not a bad character piece; it just isn't as cute as it thinks it is.
In "King", Mr. Douglas' Charlie returns from a stint in a mental hospital to find his 16 year old daughter Miranda, whose mother has also left, maintaining the family home via a job a McDonald's and good old-fashioned scripted precociousness. Mr. Douglas gives a typically fine performance, making Charlie just as nutty as he needs to be to keep us guessing if he's completely nuts. As played by Ms. Wood (straining for range and still trying to capitalize on "Thirteen"
), Miranda could be any angsty teen; her time alone (which she finagled by hoodwinking various social service organizations) seems to have had little effect on her. Are kids today really this self-reliant?
When Charlie reenters Miranda's life, he immediately turns her world upside down, leaving dishes in the sink, disappearing on long walks, and generally slacking off. Miranda deals with him, as she explains through an over-used voice-over, because, well, he's her Dad. But when Charlie starts on one of his Ralph Kramden-esque hare-brained schemes (in this case, finding buried Spanish gold somewhere in Southern California) upsetting Miranda's controlled but lonely environment, a father-daughter blow up is imminent.
The script from first-timer Cahill has promising elements. There's a wonderful sequence which shows Charlie and Miranda unearthing lost landmarks in typical suburban locales (backyards, golf courses, etc). In these moments, "King" recalls that odd 1968 paean to rural decay, "The Swimmer". It might have been helpful for Mr. Cahill's script to dig up more of a statement about the over-development of American soil. More of that might have made "King" rise above the ranks of whimsical independent film. But Charlie is so clearly a saint and Miranda so ridiculously well-adjusted that there is little at stake. The winkingly-staged climax in that Mecca of suburban shopping sprawl, Costco, is cute but it lacks any real suspense. If you don't think Charlie and Miranda will find a solution, you'd have to be crazy.