Rebellion failed in the late ’60s, and America eventually moved on. Filmmakers, however, did not, and they have spent the last three and half decades examining and reexamining the circumstances and consequences of those heady years, continuing to do so even in the present. Hence “Across the Universe.” Hence “Wattstax.” And hence “King of California,” a movie that looks back on that rebellious spirit, mourns its loss, and fails to do anything else.
The plot of “King of California” is simple: Charlie (Michael Douglas), a fading beatnik recently released from a mental ward, convinces his daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) to join him on a hunt for lost Californian gold. In the end, Charlie finds the gold buried in a cave beneath a Costco but then is buried along with it when a police officer accidentally seals off the cave’s entrance. Charlie dies and the movie ends, concluding what is essentially a Californian pastoral, a film that mourns the death of Charlie’s anti-establishment character type at the hands of conformist society. “King of California” shines in a few moments of whimsy, but is unfortunately marred by bad writing and a general lack of vitality. The film never protests the death of rebellion, simply marking it with tears and kitschy voice-over.
Most of “King of California” follows Charlie and Miranda as they wander through suburban wastelands on their hunt for treasure, and the film is at its best when it just lets its characters traipse around Southern California, happily joining in Charlie’s freewheeling romps. He and Miranda are isolated by modern society (can’t we make a film about someone who is too well-loved, too understood by family and friends?), but while Charlie refuses to acknowledge the suburban world that is emerging around him, Miranda is increasingly drawn to its order and stability. As Miranda, Wood does a good job of portraying a character in the process of being seduced by conventionality, even while she learns to admire her father’s eccentricities (yawn, more on the screenwriting later). Douglas’ work is very Douglas; even in his portrayal of a tottering, insane man, he cannot help but come across as a sophisticated, controlling know-it-all. Although the performances are admirable overall, both actors’ efforts are crippled by the banal script of Mike Cahill, the film’s screenwriter and director. The voice-over Cahill makes Wood recite is especially bad; classically kitsch, it drives home the film’s message to audience members who, if they had been awake, could have taken it from the film itself.
Many films in Michael Douglas’ career have focused on individualism in America, and it is interesting to view “King of California” within this context. Douglas gained his first major Hollywood exposure in 1975 as producer for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which centers around one man’s futile fight against an insane asylum’s staff. The film had special pathos in the ’70s, being inspired by a generation’s disappointment with the failed revolutions of the previous decade. In many ways “King of California” can be seen as Douglas’ look back on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” as both films are set in California, both focus on “insane” people struggling against society and both end with the defeat of their non-conformist heroes.
“King of California” differs from its predecessor in one crucial way, however: In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” victory over the hospital’s authoritarian administration exists as a possibility, and this possibility makes the eventual defeat all the more tragic; in “King of California,” defeat by the Man is admitted from the outset — Costco is too strong, McDonald’s is too strong. We know that Charlie’s lifestyle is finished before we even see him. Thus, for 93 minutes, the audience witnesses not a call for rebellion, nor a tragedy about the failure of rebellion, but rather a placid lament for Charlie’s lost way of life, for a lost breed of Kerouacs and Ken Keseys and bebop kids. This sentimental defeatism drains the film of its vitality, leaving the audience no choice but to nod their head in agreement, walk out of the theatre and go back home to suburbia.
Rookie screenwriter and director Mike Cahill has a ways to go; Cahill wrote novels before creating “King of California,” and he has not yet learned the delicate, compact craft of screenwriting. Perhaps he’ll get another chance with another film; perhaps he’ll give up, marry, and raise children in the suburban world he so detests. Either way, he missed the mark with “King of California,” trying too hard to explain himself and not trusting his actors to communicate the film’s message.