If there's one thing Michael Douglas does really well, it's crazy. In 1993, he did crazy to near-perfection as William "D-Fens" Foster in Joel Schumacher's Falling Down. I still think of Douglas's performance in that film 14 years later -- I ruminated on it most recently while stuck in traffic for 40 minutes due to road construction on my way to the Telluride Film Festival. Visions of Douglas wigging out and blowing up the construction site after he confronts the foreman and confirms his long-held suspicion that there was, in fact, no reason whatsoever for the construction that was tying up traffic danced in my head as I sat there whiling away the endless minutes. Douglas tackled a different kind of crazy in Wonder Boys, the film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, in which he perfectly embodied Professor Grady Tripp, who's gotten lost in a haze of pot smoke while having an affair with his boss's wife and endlessly writing a novel called Wonder Boys, which seems to have no end.
In King of California, which played at Sundance earlier this year and opens theatrically this weekend, Douglas tackles another kind of crazy as Charlie: long-haired, wild-eyed dad to a teenage daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood, who's become rather the go-to girl of the moment for angsty teen girl roles). As we enter Charlie and Miranda's story, Charlie has just returned home after a relaxing two-year stay in a mental institution, during which the now 16-year-old Miranda has fended for herself, dropping out of school in order to hold down a crappy fast-food job to pay the bills and keep their dilapidated house, and even buy her own car. Miranda has achieved a measure of scrappy independence without Charlie in her life, and his reappearance is met with something less than the enthusiasm Charlie anticipated. Sporting overgrown hair, a beard inspired by Grizzly Adams, and a bemused, slightly vacuous expression, Charlie is one of those fellows who ambles through life, slightly befuddled that those around them don't see the world quite the way he does. Her father's cheerfully off-kilter perspective, enhanced by abundant drug use with his jazz musician buds throughout Miranda's childhood, gifted Miranda with a childhood spent on the fringe, doomed to never fit in, to struggle to both understand her father and defend him against the world, and to grow too fast into the responsible adult in their two-member family (her mother long since abandoned them). Given her childhood and the adult responsibilities she's shouldered as a result of her father's absence, Miranda's tolerance for Charlie coming back into her life and suddenly deciding to play the role of father, questioning her and trying to lay down rules, doesn't go over too well.
Charlie has a short attention span, though, and his interest in playing dad soon gives way to another obsession: he is convinced that a long-hidden Spanish treasure lies buried somewhere near their California neighborhood, and, armed with a metal detector and his limited wits, he is intent on finding it. Miranda, skeptical at first, finds herself inexorably drawn into Charlie's madness, and, almost against her will, begins to believe that the treasure just might exist. When Charlie determines that the treasure is actually buried beneath the local Costco, she takes a job there in order to scope things out and help Charlie excavate his treasure -- and prove to his daughter once and for all that there's more to him than the crazy, irresponsible man she believes him to be.
King of California is a cute, quirky film; when I first saw it at Sundance it felt a little light and fizzy compared to some of the heavier fest fare, but it's kind of grown on me over time. Douglas's performance is almost misleadingly good -- you almost forget that he's acting here, until you recall his many turns in other films. As he did in Falling Down and Wonder Boys, in King of California Douglas completely immerses himself in his character. As Charlie, Douglas is wild and passionate and almost completely off his rocker -- and yet we, like Miranda, find ourselves drawn to him, and inexplicably wanting to believe him. There are elements of both William Foster and Grady Tripp in Michael's take on Charlie -- Charlie is, perhaps, who Grady Tripp would be had he dropped a little more acid and not had the stability of teaching at a college and his one-time success as a writer to keep his head just bobbing above the waters of crazy; Charlie has long since gone on the crazy scuba dive, but there's still enough normal in him to want desperately to prove himself to his daughter.
This is one of Douglas's strongest turns in years, but Wood, at the tender age of 19, more than holds her own against the seasoned performer. She wraps her head around Miranda's lonely desperation, her sense of isolation that's the inevitable result of having to take on the role of parent to her own father, her need to create an artificial sense of safety by controlling her environment, even when she's in situations in which she has no control. The life Miranda created for herself for the two years Charlie was gone was an unstable illusion of security. His reappearance forces her to confront her feelings about him -- does she hate him? Love him? Want hug him and be hugged by him, or want to strangle him for his cheery obliviousness to the reality of their life together? As Wood plays Miranda, it's a little of all those things, all mixed together -- a real and subtle portrayal of a kid who's had to grow up too fast, who nonetheless still wants to believe in the fairy tale.
The script by first time writer-director Mike Cahill, a contemporary of Alexander Payne's (Sideways) from UCLA Film School, is really first rate, darkly comedic material, and Cahill, apparently recognizing that it's the casting of Douglas and Wood opposite each other that really makes his story shine, seems to mostly stay out of their way. He pulls off the quirkier moments in the story without making them seem unbelievable. This is largely due to Douglas's performance; because we believe him as Charlie, we believe in Charlie's dream and we, like Miranda, find ourselves rooting for him to find absolution in the buried treasure he seeks.