' ' Cinema Romantico: King of California

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

King of California

Netflix advises that 2007's indie "King of California" is "quirky", and I suppose that in theory the premise is in indeed quirky. Charlie (Michael Douglas) is released from a mental hospital after a two year stay and picked up by his daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood). She is seventeen, a high school dropout and an employee at McDonald's since her mother left home after Charlie was sent away. Once back in his familiar if ramshackle confines, Charlie iss consumed by the subject on which he was reading up while institutionalized - namely, the possibility that a Spanish explorer, Father Juan Florismarte Torres, buried treasure in the form of precious gold somewhere in the vacinity of the sprawling southern California suburb where he and his daughter reside. Together father and daughter traverse the Father's path except that since it's several hundred years later the once beautiful, un-disturbed landscape is now dotted with Applebees, Petcos, and Costcos.

Miranda, of course, is hesitant of her father's ravings at first only to reluctantly indulge him before maybe, just maybe, truly beginning to believe in him. After all, as she states in her charming voice-over that runs throughout the film, children want to believe in their parents.

So yeah, it sounds quirky but writer/director Mike Cahill delicately fashions something else, an idiosyncratic indie fable. This occurs in no small part because of the lead performances. Douglas is experienced and skilled enough to know that going overboard in this situation would have been wrong. Instead he downplays both the zaniness and the very real possibility of his mental handicaps and comes across more like a guy devoutly adherent to his own unique, albeit warped, code. Wood meanwhile shows her potential has blossomed into true talent. She is hardened, a person wise beyond her years, more from necessity than choice, and is at once exasperated and patient with her father. There is an establishing scene of her at the McDonald's where a customer changes orders several times. Most films would have forced Wood to offer some spicy retort but she just stands there and takes it and puts on a brave face and gets on with it.

But Cahill's most brilliant decision is to make the movie specifically about the pursuit of the hidden gold and not much else. There are no forced forays into "wacky" comedy and the only fanciful flight into sub-characters involves Miranda getting invited to what may or may not be a "swingers" party though even that serves a purpose for the treasure hunt. By doing so the message of the film gradually develops via the narrative rather than being forcefed and by the time Charlie gives a poignant monologue in a Costco break room while simultaneously tying up his daughter to the Coke machine you realize that despite the plot's basis in absurdity what you're really witnessing is a testament to dreaming the impossible dream and a genuine and altogether touching portrait of father/daughter love.

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