Some movies look better on the page than they do on the screen. Novelist Mike Cahill's King of California was a finalist for the Zoetrope Screenplay Contest in 2004, and it's not hard to see why. It's packed with the kind of quirks many readers of novels and short stories love: allusions to Great Books, meditations on the history of a landscape, narration by a teen wise beyond her years, and a crazy person who understands things sane folks don't.
Unfortunately, when transferred to the screen by the author-turned-director, all these baroque literary touches feel kind of forced. The only element that really works is, oddly enough, the biggest and baddest cliché of them all: the lovable loon. Protagonist Charlie (Michael Douglas) is clearly modeled on Cervantes' Don Quixote, a madman who Dreamed the Impossible Dream. Released after several years in a mental institution, the former jazzman returns home to find his 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) supporting herself just fine with no parental figures on the scene.
Amazed that he somehow managed to "raise a law-abiding citizen," Charlie enlists his offspring in a scheme to find a cache of gold a Spanish padre may have buried in the Californian wilderness back in the 1600s. But given the current state of SoCal real estate — once hidden by an orange grove, Charlie's ramshackle house now perches above a subdevelopment — chances are the treasure will turn out to reside under a golf course or big-box store. And so it transpires.
Sporting the unkempt 'do of Jeff Daniels in The Big Lebowski, without the paunch, Douglas underplays enough to make his character both plausible and likable. (It's scary to consider the antics Robin Williams might have unleashed in this role.) He doesn't try to make insanity into a series of cute tics, but he does remind us that even level-headed folks can feel the power of delusion. In Cervantes' novel, Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza, is perfectly sane. But the peasant wants so much to believe windmills are giants that sometimes he actually sees them.
Substitute the Don's bloody windmill-and-sheep encounters with some slapstick scenes involving a backhoe, a metal detector and other devices of the treasure-hunting trade, and you have the bulk of the movie. But its weakest element is the Sancho stand-in. As Miranda, Wood tries hard to imbue her character with an inner life, but she spends most of her time looking aghast as Douglas does something wacky. Straight man or woman roles are thankless, and Cahill hasn't given Miranda any comic bits of her own, or any personality beyond self-reliance and a desire to connect with her dad. Though she too becomes fascinated by the 17th-century priest's account of his trek across California, Cahill never makes it clear how that tale relates to her personal hopes and dreams — if she has any.
Like last year's surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine, King of California combines vague, angsty reflections about modern life with a certain amount of flat-out silliness. The hyperactive score, by David Robbins, jumps wildly from banjo plucking to theremin wailing to salsa beats, as if trying to convince us this is a screwy Coen brothers comedy. But it's neither that weird nor that funny, and it lacks Sunshine's strong ensemble cast.
With Miranda serving alternately as an audience for her father's escapades and a mouthpiece for the author, the movie is practically a one-man show. But Douglas almost pulls it off. When his daughter harangues him, "You think the world exists just to amuse you," he growls back, without hesitation, "Have you looked at the world?"