At 63, Michael Douglas is finally starting to act his age or at least like someone pushing 50. In the new indie comedy King of California, he wears a frazzled gray beard, lets his wardrobe go to hell and generally acts like an irresponsible old geezer. Never once is he terrorized by a psychologically unstable hottie, fawned over by impressionable coeds a third his age or made to look like a fount of Viagra-free virility. Of course, he's still too old to be believably cast as the father of a sardonic 16-year-old girl (Evan Rachel Wood), and there's the obligatory scene where he has to prove he's still "got it" by working his Gordon Gekko charm on an obliging, seemingly age-appropriate policewoman. But for someone old enough to be hocking diabetes medication on daytime TV, this can be considered progress.
Offbeat without being cute or cloying, California is one of those rare movies that can be undisparagingly described as "quirky." Its characters and ideas seem to come from a real place the movie is dedicated to writer-director Michael Cahill's father even if the situations are the stuff of pure Hollywood fantasy. Douglas' Charlie is introduced upon his release from a mental ward, and if he seems genuinely deranged at the outset, it doesn't take long for him to soften into the kind of adorably loony behavior we generally associate with movie nutcases: No noticeable drooling, inappropriate touching or violent outbursts here. His daughter Miranda (Wood) is the audience stand-in, a deadpan, self-sufficient high-school dropout who's learned to live without authority figures all too well.
If anything, California is almost too invested in these early scenes of character development. Cahill lingers on the awkward silences, buried resentments and irresponsible mentoring of this father-daughter duo, when most of us in the audience are no doubt antsy to get to the meat of the picture: Charlie's claim that there's a fortune in Spanish treasure buried beneath their gleaming neighborhood Costco. A heist is the movie's hook, and yet we have to wait for the inevitable defrosting of Miranda's heart so she and Charlie can get on with the business of infiltrating the superstore's staff, befriending the security guards and making inappropriate use of some bargain power tools.
It doesn't help that the ethereal Wood is too much of a softie to make a believable curmudgeon. Five years ago, an attitudinally challenged actress such as Thora Birch would've hit a role like this out of the park; while the wavy-haired, fair-skinned Wood looks as if she might share genes with Douglas, she's not nearly bitchy enough to counteract his crazed optimism. And if there's one thing Douglas does well, it's batty, manic positivity. Relegated mostly to two characters and a handful of locations, California is an insular, slight film that would benefit from more threat or conflict: The police, when they arrive, are so ineffectual they might as well be holding water pistols. But as long as the hang-loose Douglas is bugging out his eyes, stroking his weird beard and coming up with far-flung schemes, the film has a natural energy you don't see in most other indies, the ones that have to stretch and strain to attain the mantle of "quirky."
Opens Friday, Oct. 5 at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main, Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].