It's hard to know what to say about a movie like King of California. It's clear that everyone who worked on it had their hearts in the right place, and they wanted to not only make a good movie, but to make a movie that was good in a moral sense: something uplifting, and something that commented on the inherent sadness of life, and the possibility of small triumphs, and the ties that bind us to each other even when we resist them, and the happiness of loving the happy loving things of love.
But at some point, you just have to admit that this movie has been made 100 times, and if you're going to make it again, you need to do things, not just a little differently, but a lot differently. Unfortunately, writer/director Mike Cahill had no interest in that sort of thing, so, knowingly or unknowingly, he opened the magical bag of movie schmaltz that the scriptwriter elves left on top of his keyboard, and he made the same movie that's been made so many times that it makes Larry King seem fresh and unused.
The story is pretty much what you'd expect from a first-time filmmaker: 16-year-old Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been taking care of herself since her father, Charlie (Michael Douglas), went into the insane asylum. But when Charlie returns, her ordered life goes all topsy-turvy and zany-like. See, Charlie has all kinds of dreams and schemes and crazy ideas, and Miranda just wants to go to work and get by in her humdrum life. But when Charlie tells her that he's found the map to a secret hidden treasure, well, just maybe Miranda will lighten up and learn that dreaming is as good as saving money and cautiously attempting to avoid bankruptcy.
Wood is perfectly decent in the lead role, but she has some awful material to work with. She has to spout diary-like voiceovers, which would be fine if they weren't meant to be so deep and heartfelt and quotable. But they're quotable in the way those motivational posters you see in airline in-flight catalogs are quotable: They sound like they were written by someone who'd just read Bartlett's and figured he had found the formula for feeling.
Douglas is also fine. In fact, he's surprisingly good in what has become the most clichéd and overused role in Hollywood: the crazy, mentally unstable dreamer who's here to teach us that if we look into our hearts, we'll etc. Yes, we'll actually etc.
But Douglas does a nice job of looking occasionally defeated, and he at times seems genuinely tired, which is a nice contrast to the manic energy that you usually see as the sole note dominating these kinds of roles. Still, he has to do all the stuff that crazy dreamers do, like come up with an insane and most likely fictional plot to find lost Spanish gold, and then actually find some of the gold, thus proving that wishing on a star sometimes gets you something besides a horrible meteor storm.
I think much of the film would have been terribly bearable if it weren't for the incredibly manipulative and obtrusive soundtrack. When I see a young woman desperately trying to deal with her mentally ill father, I automatically feel bad. I don't need a raft of violins to tell me that this is, indeed, a sad scene.
I will say this, though: Once the plot swings into full gear in the final third, King of California becomes very engaging. The schmaltzy music drops out; the previously overemphasized emotional content is put to good use in grounding the characters' relations to each other; and the meandering and well-worn story discovers a few twists.
The denouement is also well-handled, and in spite of being a little too clever, it manages to neatly wrap things up in a conceptually satisfying way. It's too bad that it took director Cahill three-quarters of the film to realize that he needed a little more story to hang his Oscar-begging on. Maybe next time out, he'll tone down the feeling-fest and mix some actual meat into his schmaltz stew.