Michael Douglas has been around long enough to realize younger, buffer stars now get the choice roles that once fell in his lap.
The combined failures of “The In-Laws,” “The Sentinel” and “It Runs in the Family” may have helped show him the light.
So it’s off to indie land for the two-time Oscar winner. He grows a wiry beard to complete his transformation from box office draw to serious actor in “King of California.” And wouldn’t you know it, the switch pays off.
Mr. Douglas plays a mentally unhinged father who drags his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) along on a wild gold chase, and along the way father and daughter bond in less than conventional fashion, while California’s past is juxtaposed with its current suburban sprawl.
Heady stuff for first time writer-director Michael Cahill, who also shows a slick sense of both visual and verbal humor in this warm, witty drama.
Charlie (Mr. Douglas) has just been released from a mental facility after a two-year stay. He reunites with his teenage daughter, Miranda (Miss Wood), who managed quite nicely in his absence.
But Charlie’s mandatory respite hasn’t changed him. He’s still spouting off one loony idea atop another, and this time he’s focused on a doozy. He’s convinced that he knows the whereabouts of a long-buried Spanish treasure. He just has to dig under a local Costco to find it.
That a seemingly sane girl like Miranda would go along for the ride is a stretch — one of many here — but both Mr. Douglas and Miss Wood build such a wholly original relationship that it’s easy to be swept along.
And let’s commend the writer-director for not making Charlie “Hollywood” crazy. Too many films dealing with the emotionally unstable let their characters grow more normal as the story demands. Even the otherwise wonderful “Sling Blade” found Karl sounding like a college professor in the film’s final moments.
Charlie’s delusions never take a holiday.
In the kind of role actors live for, Mr. Douglas dazzles without overshadowing the material. His Charlie is a force of nature with charisma to burn and an intellect that makes even his craziest plans sound like they just might work.
Miss Wood stands toe-to-toe with her co-star, displaying a maturity not apparent from her earlier work. Like Scarlett Johansson, Miss Wood often skates by on her striking looks and probing gaze, but she makes Miranda into an extraordinary teen, a girl who survives despite an almost complete lack of parental involvement.
“King of California” might lose its crown toward the finale, where happy endings and grim truths collide in regrettable fashion, but Mr. Douglas proves independent films remain a great way to insulate oneself from equally grim box office realities.
TITLE: “King of California”
RATING: PG-13 (adult language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Michael Cahill
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
WEB SITE: www.firstlookstudios.com/films/king/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS