Michael Douglas in King of California

Michael Douglas excels at portraying middle-aged men who are a few yards shy of being neurologically balanced. Witness his turns as a pot-smoking writer in Wonder Boys and as a same-sex-loving cop on TV's Will & Grace for examples of this. And now there's another role to add to this list -- that of the mentally unhinged Charlie in King of California, the rights to which were just picked up by First Look for a cool $3 million.

This funny, poignant, crowd-pleasing dramedy from talented first-time writer-director Mike Cahill tells the story of Douglas' Charlie, who returns home to his daughter Miranda (the sublime Evan Rachel Wood) after a two-year stint in a mental institution seemingly crazier than ever -- muttering about naked Chinese men washing up on the California beaches and 17th-century Spanish doubloons buried somewhere in SoCal. Thanks in part to her dad's magnetic eccentricity, his unflinching optimism that there is indeed buried treasure nearby, and her own sheer boredom, Miranda agrees to aid Charlie in his quest.

The film that emerges from their father-daughter treasure hunt could have been one 90-minute cliche. It could have been just another quirky indie about a cartoonishly dysfunctional family. But Michael Douglas, looking as bearded, mustachioed and grayed as the Man of la Mancha, is so sympathetic, so pure of heart in his delusion that it's impossible not to see him as a modern-day Don Quioxte. One crazy yet tender look from Douglas, his eyes popping wide out of his head, an innocent (and mildly deranged) smile playing across his lips, and it's easy to see why Miranda would line up next to him to joust a windmill or two. That said, the film would be lost without Wood's compelling performance to anchor it.


She imbues Miranda, a girl who was forced to drop out of school and take care of herself at the age of 15, with premature world-weariness and just a hint of hope. She is Charlie's Sancho Panza, his voice of reason and his loving companion. She is our eyes in the film, and we see Charlie as she does. And, in the end, what we see is a beautiful tale about hope, love, family and chasing your dreams -- no matter who or what your Dulcinea may be.

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