On the silver screen, mental illness is often depicted as a kind of blessing. It’s seen as nonconformity that gives characters an extra zest for life or imbues them with a flagrant disregard for their own well-being that can then be used as a superpower. Apparently, the best way to think outside the box is to think inside the padded room.
At first, King of California shows mental illness as the burden that it most assuredly is, but inevitably, the psychotic delusions of Charlie (Douglas) cross the line to become charming flights of fancy. Charlie’s daughter Miranda (Wood), is inured to the madness she grew up with, which forced her to age far beyond her 15 years. She’s managed to convince her mother, her father and the state that she’s in the custody of whichever one of the three she isn’t presently talking to, and thus makes a meager living working overtime at McDonald’s. Then her father is released from the institution. His therapy included frequent trips to the library, where his penchant for obscure history convinced him that there are Spanish gold doubloons buried in the nearby California suburbs. “If you don’t believe me, you can look it up,” he insists.
Sure, he doesn’t work, he dirties the dishes, and he sells his daughter’s car without permission to finance his crazy scheme, but every once in a while, in his own wild, bug-eyed way, he manages to do something endearing to show he really cares about her. And since nothing brings father and daughter together quite like an insane quest, it’s only a matter of time before she’s standing beside him, jack-hammering through the floor of the local Costco where this treasure is supposedly buried.
Douglas, with his Unabomber makeover, looks to be having the time of his life in a role that requires lots of ranting and little subtlety. And Wood, who has yet to deliver a bad performance, brings together Douglas’ wild mannerisms and the absurd plot by creating a character so world-weary that we can understand why she longs for the escape of Charlie’s loony misadventure and is willing to brush aside common sense.
So is that Costco really sitting on a gold mine? Let me put it this way: This movie is destined to have a bittersweet, happy ending whether there’s gold or not. It’s just that kind of flick. The sentimentality will drive some viewers crazy, but if you’re using Hollywood’s definition of crazy, then that’s not so bad.
King of California
Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II
Directed by Mike Cahill