Debuting director/screenwriter Mike Cahill wisely avoids both sentiment and condescension in this poignant, tragicomic depiction of a rather trite Hollywood staple: the lovable loony. Unlike more mawkish and indulgent portraits of this type that prod the audience to marvel at a gentle mental patient's every whacky move, King of California is just as mindful of its central character's maddening flaws as it is admiring of his kooky idealism.
Charlie (a very hairy Michael Douglas) returns from a two-year hospital stint to his jaded teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Alarmingly self-sufficient, the high school dropout has been keeping house and subsisting off double McDonald's shifts (product placement is used cunningly here, in-your-face yet self-mocking). Douglas, adrift in late-60s anti-establishment speak, is discouraged at her resignation to suburban anomie; Wood is alternately amused and exasperated with her father's constant need to make a dent in this cold, corporate world. But they're best friends, alone together, ever since a divorce years back that Cahill deftly explains in just one superb line. Through persistence, Douglas convinces Wood to aid him in his latest mission: to uncover ancient Spanish gold he believes is buried under a hardware chain monolith, corrupting the once-undeveloped California valley.
The planning and execution of their "heist" is both cheerfully outrageous and wistful. Surely almost everyone has dreamed of pulling a feat like this, and Douglas' blind optimism is hilarious. Yet simultaneously, the film pulls back to reveal the devastatingly self-centered nature of most dreamers, the impact their dreams can have on their more sound caretakers. Ultimately, Wood's story is the most heartbreaking, and therein lies the film's key misstep. Friendless, her world claustrophobic, her future uncertain, Wood nonetheless seems too calm and self-contained, an unlikely offspring of this grandstanding loony.