Advanced middle age—okay, old age—seems to liberate certain leading men from the bonds of clench-jawed stud-dom, and if this sweet, strangely agreeable indie trifle is any indication, Michael Douglas is now officially among them. With a scruffy conquistador beard, googly eyes and heartbreakingly spindly legs, he cuts loose as Charlie, a delusional ex-musician recently released from a two-year sanitarium stay into the care of his put-upon latchkey daughter, Miranda (Wood).
The sketchy, derivative story (think Terry Gilliam), about Charlie’s pursuit of a cache of Spanish gold he’s convinced is buried somewhere near the family’s shabby SoCal-boonies home, shows signs of attempted cutting-room resuscitation, and Douglas has too much fun breaking in codgerhood to bother finding the haunted depth in his once-suicidal character. But King of California is nevertheless weirdly captivating. The quiet, bruised intimacy of the film’s father-daughter relationship is beautifully played, and first-time screenwriter-director Mike Cahill’s wry grasp of the desert-suburban-sprawl milieu is refreshingly harangue-free: He strikes a fascinating balance between bitter repulsion and begrudging fondness that anybody raised in strip-mall hell will understand. In that vein, there are a couple of shout-outs to Costco, which plays a substantial supporting role