Directorial debut by Payne contemporary Mike Cahill is a treasure

King Of California

on September 14, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
Although writer/director Mike Cahill graduated from UCLA film school with producer Alexander Payne, it's his first career as a novelist—he penned A Nixon Man , for which he received a best first novel award—that informs his feature film debut. The first-person voiceover, idiosyncratic characters, offbeat occurrences and thematic undercurrent are all elements of great short fiction. Yet what Cahill achieves, particularly in his underplayed yet pervasive comment on his setting, is singularly cinematic: He doesn't have to tell us that the once rugged and pastoral Inland Empire of Southern California is being carved up and scarred by suburbia—we see it and come to that conclusion for ourselves.

Seventeen-year-old Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has fended for herself for the past two years while her bushy-bearded father Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been institutionalized. She quit school for a McJob, buying herself a car off eBay and living in her family's old farmhouse, now surrounded by new development. Upon his release, however, she soon realizes it's “time to get back on that bipolar pony and ride.” Once a jazz musician, Charlie has gotten it into his head that there's still Spanish gold buried out there somewhere in the SoCal landscape. He drags Miranda on a fool's errand around the area's golf courses, sod farms and, ultimately, a Costco, which, conveniently enough, carries all the tools needed for their excavation amid its wonderland of shiny household appliances.

Well, almost. In one of Cahill's sly asides, Charlie lugs his own surveying equipment right into the wholesale warehouse. “I didn't know we carried those,” a store employee says. “You carry everything,” Charlie counters. Point taken. “How is it working out for you?”

Accompanied by a playful score, punchy dialogue and beguiling performances (taking a page from his role in Wonder Boys , Douglas is charming and earnest—a revelation), King of California taps into a number of compelling themes: fathers, daughters and a child's disillusionment; public versus private land, exploration and adventure; societal disaffection; and believing in the fantastic. Like the layers of earth through which Charlie digs for buried treasure, moviegoers will delight in excavating the strata of motifs in King of California .
Distributor: First Look
Cast: Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood and Willis Burks II
Director/Screenwriter: Mike Cahill
Producers: Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, Alexander Payne and Michael London
Genre: Comedy drama
Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, mature thematic elements and brief drug references
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: September 14, 2007 NY/LA
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