There are many great movies about California THE GRAPES OF WRATH, KISS ME DEADLY, CHINATOWN and if novelist-turned-director Mike Cahill's look at the current state of the Golden State isn't quite an American masterpiece, it's beautifully done and a needed reminder of exactly why Michael Douglas is a movie star.
For the past two years, 16-year-old Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has worked double shifts at McDonald's to cover the rent on the family home, keeping Child Services and Child Welfare at cross-purposes so neither agency notices that she's entirely on her own. Her mother, a successful hand model, left years earlier, when life with her jazz-musician husband, Charlie (Douglas), got too crazy to handle. When Charlie himself got too crazy, he was sent away for a two-year stay at Santa Clarita's Department of Behavioral Health in sunny SoCal. Now Charlie's back in Miranda's life, pockets filled with meds, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and a head filled with crazy talk about naked Chinese men swimming to California with their clothes in garbage bags. The childhood home to which Charlie returns was once surrounded by orange groves; now it's the only nondevelopment house in a sprawling new suburban neighborhood that, like much of Southern California, wasn't there when Charlie was a kid. When Miranda catches Charlie sneaking around with a GPS and surveying instruments, pretending to be going on a job interview at Applebee's only to slip out the back door with his equipment, Miranda demands to know what's going on. Charlie lets her in on his grand scheme: While in the hospital, he read the diary of 17th-century Spanish missionary Father Juan Florismartes Garces, who traveled California with a cache of gold doubloons and precious religious artifacts. Charlie is convinced that if he and Miranda follow the padre's diary to the now-diverted river where he was forced to abandon his gold, they'll be rich. More than that, Charlie will be able to feel that his insane life wasn't a complete and total cock-up. Though angry that she must now take care of the father who was never able to properly care for her, Miranda still feels a child's basic need to believe in her parents. But once they locate the approximate whereabouts of Father Florismartes Garces' supposed secret stash, they find that the "X" that should mark the spot is now deep below the concrete floors of a new kind of California landmark: a gigantic Costco.
"Who doesn't want to believe in buried treasure?" Miranda rhetorically asks as she finds herself falling under her wayward father's spell, and first-time director Cahill certainly knows how to tell a good buried-treasure story. He keeps the audience guessing as to whether Charlie is completely nuts or there really is gold in that thar Costco. Alongside such marvelous flourishes as a witty, animated woodcut sequence, Cahill also manages a sly critique of contemporary California culture where the landscape has been dramatically altered by golf courses, Chuck E. Cheeses and Petcos, where bewildered bobcats forage for food in suburban kitchens and where displaced deer wander the aisles of Target. Wood is excellent, but this is a career highlight for Douglas. His depiction of the manic Charlie stays surprisingly grounded and prevents the story from being a naive celebration of mental illness as a kind of freedom that it so easily could have become. leave a comment --Ken Fox