If you saw Michael Douglas’ King of California character on the street, you’d avoid eye contact and walk quickly past him. After two years in an institution, Douglas’ Charlie is disheveled and wild-eyed, oblivious to the concepts of authority or boundaries and talks of little but finding an ancient treasure buried somewhere in West Coast suburbia. But this is a movie, so Charlie isn’t mentally ill, he’s magical. His unkempt hair and bushy beard are charming. And his eyes aren’t rheumy from manic, sleepless nights. They sparkle with life.
Charlie’s 16-year-old daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), seems to understand that her father is perhaps not yet fit to leave the hospital as she moans in voiceover about how the relatively stable life she’s made for herself—trading school for a full-time job at McDonald’s to pay the bills—is about to be upended when he comes home. (Mom, who we’re told is a hand model for no reason other than to ratchet up quirk value, left a while ago.) Miranda sounds a little selfish, but, of course, that’s all going to change—she may have become so distant from her father that she calls him Charlie, but really, as she says, “Who doesn’t want to believe in buried treasure?”
You can imagine how it all goes down. Charlie does something kooky, like selling Miranda’s car to buy excavating equipment—committed one day, given access to a backhoe the next—and shrugs adorably when he gets caught. Miranda acts exasperated and even stern but inevitably rolls her eyes in a sitcommy, “Oh, Dad!” kind of way. The surprising part about writer-director Mike Cahill’s debut is that it’s not nearly as wacky as its plot should rightly dictate—it’s actually rather dull. Miranda’s narration is incessant, covering everything from her family’s background to purple excerpts from the journal of a Spanish explorer that Charlie’s been studying to find clues about lost gold. It’s a lot of information that Wood often delivers too quickly to grasp, and it soon becomes just a lulling background noise.
And though while what we hear may get complicated, what we see is anything but. Here’s Miranda at work, taking calls from Charlie as he further tries to convince her of the treasure’s existence. Now they’re in some off-limits area, say a private golf course, as Charlie manipulates his GPS device, and Miranda looks vaguely concerned. Then they’re in their run-down Victorian home, father and daughter gently butting heads over stuff such as whether he’s eaten and how she’s got too many responsibilities to go off digging for loot in the middle of the night. Golden-tinged flashbacks show poor wee 9-year-old Miranda (Allisyn Ashley Arm) washing dishes as her musician dad (of course he’s a musician) plays upright bass with a bunch of other layabouts. The most memorable moments are also the creepiest, involving unattractive, middle-aged swingers in tiny bathing suits at a barbecue, slowly gyrating to Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” and trying to get Miranda into a thong. It’s an integral scene but…yikes.
One imagines that Cahill intended all manner of meaning to flow from his script, not only about the specialness of the parent-child bond but also about chasing dreams, believing in people, the existence of treasure just beneath the surface of our junk society. (The spot where Charlie finally marks his X is in a Costco, which, along with McDonald’s, gets as much screen time as the characters.) But the director is too focused on nurturing Douglas’ show-pony performance to develop the most important element of the story: the relationship between Charlie and Miranda. If you can’t feel the love, you can’t believe that this otherwise smart and responsible girl would go along with Charlie’s ridiculous, usually felonious actions. When, during one of their fights, she yells, “You never listen!” the line seems like it belongs in a different movie. By the time Charlie shows up in the middle of Costco in a wet suit, you’ll wish you were in a different movie, too.