In “King Of California,” a bug-eyed, grubby Michael Douglas tries and fails to channel Don Quijote, succeeding only at creating a misguided, self-conscious attempt at quirky indie comedy. Douglas plays Charlie, a jazz bassist just out of a mental institution who returns home to his daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), a precocious sixteen-year-old dropout who works at a McDonalds. Charlie believes the solution to life’s woes is a sixteenth century Spanish treasure, just waiting to be excavated underneath the local neighborhood Costco. Cue the unfunny, flat shenanigans. Armed with a map, a metal detector and a very weak script, Douglas mines his role for juicy wacko bits, while Wood is left sporting a pretty hairdo and rolling her eyes on the sidelines. This hardly makes for a good half-hour of television, let alone an entertaining full-length feature film. Can Charlie convince Miranda to go along with his kooky plan? Can estranged father and daughter re-establish their relationship along the way? Do we care? Not really.
Though this movie attempts to convey a sweetly honest relationship, the characters come off as one-dimensional stereotypes of a lovably crazy musician and his bitterly rebellious teenager. It’s really not Wood’s or Douglas’ fault that they are both thuddingly unconvincing; the blame should be placed on the script, which is as flat as the concrete floor of Costco itself. Heads-up to Alexander Payne fans; he didn’t write, he just produced. Written and directed by Mike Cahill, “King of California” has the haphazard feel of a shoddy first-time script, when the writer sews a few interesting ideas and images together (obese people at a barbecue! Michael Douglas in a wetsuit!) and hopes the audience won’t notice that it doesn’t make sense. Where are the rest of the characters? Where is the actual story? What is going on here? None of these questions are answered. Cahill tries mightily to add that certain indie quirk, but the details feel tacked-on instead of organic. The movie is an awkward mishmash of a PBS special about the history of California, a cheesy crime caper and a droll family satire in the style of Wes Anderson, sans humor. Needless to say, this is a bad combination.
The unbelievable situations (would a Costco staff remain completely oblivious to Charlie and Miranda drawing Xs on the floor in marker?) would be forgivable if the movie were wittier. Despite its shortcomings, the film’s sincerity is endearing, and the audience constantly roots for it to turn around and become what everyone paid to see: a well-written, heartfelt comedy. If not that, then at least marginally amusing. Unfortunately, Douglas digging through California dirt and tearing his hair out with trembling hands doesn’t prove the film’s quality, and neither does the heavy-handed soundtrack. “King of California” makes a bad name for indie movies, shooting for whimsy and missing by a mile.