"Don Quixote", Cervantes' legendary novel, takes an adventurous route in illustrating the delusional downward spiral of a lowly man's quest for personal glorification. Though he's a loony old Spaniard with wispy dreams of personal importance, there's something captivating about his wildly fervent passion. The same can be said for Charlie, the wild-eyed protagonist in Mike Cahill's King of California. It's a tale about his whimsical mental deconstruction, and a story packed to the gully with quirkiness and bittersweet warmth.
Produced by the independent brains behind Sideways, namely with Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) in an active role, King of California embraces a similarly quirky and intrinsic look at a man on the brink of crumbling insanity. But this story starts with Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), his daughter. When jazz musician Charlie (Michael Douglas) lands himself two years in a mental institution, she must find a way to survive without him or her deceased mother. She drops out of high school, lands a job at a major fast food chain, and strives diligently to pay the bills. Even purchasing a car (or, more accurately, a bucket of bolts with a running engine) becomes a pinnacle of her life, as she accomplishes it all independently. Miranda only holds onto two distinctive reminders of her family: the family house in the dusty hills of rapidly-developing California, and her father's bass that stoically oversees her living room.
Difficult as it might be, life works for Miranda. Then, her father stumbles back into the picture. After she drives to pick Charlie up from the institution to bring him back home into her functional life, she notices something, a sparkling obsession, in his eyes. Surprisingly, Charlie starts to let that sparkle out. He begins making demands for Miranda to take him to specific locations in her car. After they make a stop and Miranda catches a glimpse of him digging through the ground, she learns of his plight: Charlie has discovered gold - yes, gold - scattered across the landscape of California through his profound literary and Internet-based research in the mental institution.
King of California tells its overall simple story, as dreary as it could've been, with a lot of enveloping heart. Suffering from a chemical imbalance with symptoms reminiscent of bi-polar disorder, Charlie becomes intrinsically focused on discovering this ancient 16th century Spanish booty. Miranda, on the other hand, must be the responsible outside party for cleaning up and paying bills in their household. Even within this infuriating collision of realities, the two start to develop a radiant concentration on the gold's discovery. Instead of dwelling on Charlie's wavering sanity, the disjointed family follows the musings of their well-researched and stalwart treasure hunter through the strip malls, golf clubs, and large-box retailers of California.
Charlie and Miranda's story comes heaving to vivid life through this wonderfully affecting streak of adventurousness. It's ultimately a film that takes the viewer along for a journey, one that steers clear from delving into the murky depths of Charlie's "faulty wiring". Instead, his internal struggles are illustrated through off-centered actions, like darting off in the middle of the night in Miranda's car and purchasing heavy excavation equipment. Douglas' sputtering electricity enhances Charlie's whimsy, as well as our compelling draw to discover what he'll find underneath his search. It's enough brash delusion for Miranda to get roped in tightly and, eventually, start to believe in the gold's existence once the evidence begins to trickle forward.
Character portrayals stand dominant in Cahill's film, most prominent in Michael Douglas as the batty Spanish-doubloon hunting manic. Typically, Douglas' performances deliver the same level and flavor of goods across all his projects. He never really seems to soak into a persona in my eyes, but still infuses his roles, such as with Traffic and Wall Street, with his own stiff essence. Here, it's a bit different; Douglas really delivers as the daft, wide-eyed Charlie, but in a way that leaves his audience feeling like he gave them a character instead of an infused performance. In conjunction with Mike Cahill's keen direction on his character, I enjoyed Douglas more in his role as Charlie than I have in any of his prior work.
To his opposite, Evan Rachel Wood feeds off of his lunacy quite well, but stays believably distanced from Charlie. We're not expecting a teenage girl to assimilate immediately to her mentally imbalanced father after two years of youthful separation, which is why Wood's portrayal of Miranda works. Together, the two don't completely feel like father and daughter, and that echoes as a surprisingly natural sentiment for King of California's satirical streak. Rarely do they, together, reflect on the past; however, when they do confront their problematic history, the electricity between them delivers the goods. It also helps that Miranda revitalizes her own reflections to her youth, illustrating a time when Charlie was still showing symptoms but wasn't completely "out there".
As I touched on earlier, King of California plunders into a few motifs that are touch-and-go reminiscent to Cervantes' "Don Quixote". I rehash this thought because, when that idea sparked in me early on in the film, it helped to create an intriguing cinematic experience inside of the core dramatic conflict. Charlie's parallels to Quixote himself are slight, but very apparent; he's a lost man, aging and losing precious time on this earth. And, while Charlie isn't thriving for the adoration of a woman like Cervantes' hero, since the respect of his daughter seems to be lost in the stratosphere early on, he does power forward in search of the gold to make something of himself as an "important man". Cahill is careful with his direction here, managing to only infuse Charlie's characters with glimmering remnants of the character. Together, with his daughter more as his supportive Sancho Panza than as an inspirational Dulcinea figure, the two plow forward through Quixote's wavering mentality to search for a form of chivalric "immortality". Plus, let's face it: Douglas just can't shake the look of a Spaniard with that beard and those emblazoned eyes.
King of California, with a keenly cinematic eye and a manner rife with lush imagery, steers away from most typical growth themes; instead, it opts for a message of finding one's own path by whatever means necessary, followed by the sprouting of growth that can come from that journey. It's a shiny, wrap-up-in-a-blanket slice of warm independent comedy that manages to slide some cunning and heartrending moments into its sweepingly loony path. King of California is a very complete film from first-time director Cahill that, even in his preliminary effort, delivered a humorous and touching piece of work that I'm thoroughly elated to have discovered.
King of California comes equipped from First Look Pictures in a standard keepcase presentation covered with a cardboard slipcase featuring the film's main characters. The top menu is animated, while the rest are static.
King of California boasts a rich visual presentation through meticulously strong cinematography and gorgeous color timing. This 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image encapsulates this lush film wonderfully. Digital distortion and edge enhancement are close to nonexistent here, paving way for a crisp and clean image. Though the colors seem overly bold and bloom a bit (though that's partially a technical decision), everything, from minuscule details to textural presentation, looks exquisite. It probably doesn't scream with detail like its high-definition counterparts might, but the radiance of this standard definition effort suits the film brilliantly.
Though not printed on the back of the package, King of California comes with both a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround choice AS WELL as a DTS option. After a bit of comparison between the two tracks, the expected "DTS is richer, broader, and crisper" argument applies here. Dialogue never wavers in clarity, even for a film on a lower budget. Most enveloping, however, is the usage of surrounds for the strong musical mood. Though effects don't stretch to the back too often (though there's an instance or two in higher-impact scenes where multidirectional usage is very solid), the score really sweeps across all speakers. One scene in particular, where Charlie plucks his bass, really shows the low-fidelity range of the DTS track. A Dolby 2.0 surround option is also available, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
- Audio Commentary with Director Cahill et al -
Some audio commentaries seem like they either a) don't carry enough energy to keep interest, or b) hold just enough interest to keep viewers watching. King of California's commentary, including Cahill, cinematographer Jim Whitaker, production designer Dan Bishop, and first assistant director Richard L. Fox, introduces a third option: an unbelievably informative piece of work that seems almost ridiculously edited to include any and all interesting tidbits about the film you'd imagine. Little things, like input from a McDonald's representative on Miranda's verbose in the restaurant or the hands on the record player in a shot, really delve into the full assembly of the film. They discuss edits made in the script, difficulties with color timing, camera techniques ... you name it, and the quad of filmmakers light up the track with interest. It's easily far beyond many of the commentary tracks I've heard, in that it remains insightful and interesting all the way through.
- Making of King of California -
This 10-minute anamorphic Making of Featurette isn't nearly as interesting as the commentary, but it adds a few extra glimmers of interests through a somewhat generic marketing mood. It discusses a lot, a lot, about how much everyone loved the script, as well as how much everyone loves the characters. Not a bad piece, but still fairly generic material. Douglas discusses a bit of "Don Quixote" in the Making Of piece, as well.
Also included are around 5 minutes of Outtakes, a Theatrical Trailer, and a cluster of other First Look Trailers.
King of California is, in its own right, a sense of adventure film; Charlie and Miranda's search across the land for Spanish gold is a delightful and exuberant tale of coping with mental illness. First Look Pictures makes certain to illustrate both the contextual and aesthetic beauty of the film with an ample presentation. Together with a quality-over-quantity docket of extras, King of California comes abundantly, and exceedingly, Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site