King of California is a dramedy that’s 75% comedy and 25% drama, or maybe it’s better characterized as a “comedy with a heart.”
Rachel Evan Wood plays Miranda, a 16 year old girl who has been living pretty much on her own for a while. She lives in her father’s house, but has not been living with him because he has been in a mental institution, evidently not for the first time. As she explains in voiceover narration, everyone (her father, her mother, the relevant state agencies, her former foster families, etc.) thinks she’s currently staying with some other responsible adult—a set of impressions she has no doubt helped to create or at least passively refrained from correcting—and so she has fallen through the cracks.
And then her father Charlie (Michael Douglas) is released and comes home.
While this dysfunctional situation could be the set-up for a serious film about a damaged child or a domestic conflict (think of the painful father-daughter relationship in Time Out of Mind, another film about a mentally ill man), remember this is a comedy. So instead we get the classic comedic role reversal, where 16 year old Miranda is the responsible one, sighing and shaking her head a lot at the wacky antics of Charlie, a grown-up who has never grown up.
It turns out that Charlie has developed a brand new scheme or adventure to be passionate about, and he’s more than willing to bring Miranda along for the ride. She quickly ascertains that what he has in mind is crazy, but she pretty much goes along with it, in an effort to improve her relationship with him by sharing his passion.
For really, despite his illness, despite the effects that has had on her (an obviously unusually intelligent, unusually mature girl who has had to drop out of high school and take a job at McDonald’s to support herself), and despite what has obviously been a rocky relationship—when he has been around at all—there is an obvious warmth between them. She’s more conscious of the flaws in their relationship, more troubled by them, and more intent on changing them than he is, as he’s kind of a goofy, happy-go-lucky sort who doesn’t seem capable of brooding over serious things like that, but in his own way he loves her and would want to be a good father to her if he could.
Anyway, the scheme he throws himself into—or them into—is a treasure hunt. It seems that while browsing in the mental institution’s library he came upon a book written in the 1600s—a journal or diary of a Spanish priest that told of the treasure he buried. Charlie has painstakingly studied the book, and believes he has figured out how to interpret it so as to provide instructions on how to find the treasure. Now it’s just a matter of following them.
(By the way, a nut house library has some rare book on its shelves from the 17th century? And an inmate is able to obtain it and bring it home with him? Really? Oh well, it’s a comedy, so I guess we’re not supposed to be troubled by things like that.)
Miranda goes back and forth between trying to rein in her crazy father and talk him out of some of what he sees as necessary steps in the treasure hunt—things involving trespassing and other more serious illegalities—and getting caught up in the excitement and maybe even thinking it might not be completely crazy. Still, of the two she remains the more skeptical, practical, level-headed one.
King of California is competently made, and at least moderately engaging. It kept me interested in seeing how it all turns out—whether they find any treasure, and what happens in their relationship. There’s a nice chemistry between Douglas and Wood, there are a few modest laughs here and there, and overall the movie has a pleasant feel to it.
Wood, incidentally, is really pretty in this movie. They’ve given her more the “girl next door” look than any kind of sexpot movie star thing, but she looks terrific.
I wouldn’t recommend King of California with any great enthusiasm, but it’s an unchallenging, feel-good movie that I liked more than not.