There’s gold in them thar discount retailers — Michael Douglas is a recovering mental patient searching for treasure in King of California, a film that doubles as a consumer-culture critique
On the surface, the premise of King of California is a little bit lacking. Paper-thin, even. Charlie (Michael Douglas) is released from a mental hospital and returns to live with his 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), who has spent the last two years supporting herself by working at McDonald’s. Charlie’s time away seems to have done him little good, as upon his return he drags his daughter all over their hometown looking for buried Spanish treasure. People who get tied up in whether or not the pair find the treasure will be sorely disappointed, though, and will have wholly missed the point of the movie.
The first half of the movie is irritatingly dominated by Miranda’s unnecessary narrated observations. After that backs away, though, the onscreen action handles the storytelling brilliantly. The interaction between Douglas and Wood all the way through King of California is impeccable. Charlie’s long beard and wild hair make it hard to forget that he’s unstable, but the subtleties in Douglas’s performance are what make it so convincing.
The passion that he shows for his treasure hunt is met at first with his daughter’s frustration, but after she sees that there’s no talking him out of it, she relents and goes along with it. Perhaps a little too quickly, Miranda is fully engrossed in the search with her father, going to extraordinary lengths to assist him, but writer Mike Cahill doesn’t make this turn flippantly. Instead of a sudden thirst for wealth, Miranda’s change of heart is guided simply by sympathy for her father, and the realization that this might be the only way to get to know him.
In addition to being a movie about family dynamics, King of California is an adventure movie set to a theme of suburban malaise. McDonald’s and Costco feature prominently in the film as emblems of the box-store consumer culture that’s taking over neighbourhoods like Charlie and Miranda’s, and are presented as the antithesis of Charlie’s adventurer spirit. Cahill’s conclusion, much like the film itself, is the type of minor moral victory that allows the individual, even if only briefly, a triumphant moment. By the end, it’s easier to relate to Charlie’s insanity than to the outside world’s alleged normalcy.