It is tempting to think of "King of California," a serious comedy that does many things right, as a sequel of sorts to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." In Mike Cahill's breezy, loose-jointed independent film, Michael Douglas, who produced "Cuckoo's Nest," kicks over the traces to play a man not unlike Randle Patrick McMurphy in the earlier film.
To be sure, Douglas' character, Charlie, appears considerably loonier than McMurphy, the charismatic, possibly sociopathic rebel in a mental institution so fiercely embodied by Jack Nicholson. A wild-haired, wild-eyed dreamer discharged from an institution in Southern California after two years and now on a half-mad quest for buried treasure, Charlie might be described as crazy-sane, with the emphasis tilting toward crazy.
The movie, narrated by Charlie's mildly exasperated but forgiving 16-year-old daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), champions the free spirit that blazes in his deranged mind with the same fervor with which "Cuckoo's Nest" applauded McMurphy's maniacal fight against authority.
The forces of oppression, instead of being distilled into a single authoritarian enemy like Nurse Ratched, are spread out. Everywhere Charlie goes in his search, he is interrupted and questioned by the police and security guards. The Southern California environment itself, where orange groves give way to strip malls, is portrayed as spiritually suffocating.
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But Charlie, riding the manic phase of a bipolar cycle, is virtually oblivious to anyone standing in his way.
Douglas, giving his strongest screen performance since "Wonder Boys," creates a portrait of a fanatic on a tear that is at once endearing and maddening, and not overplayed. Charlie's quest is only the latest in a series of offbeat schemes in which he hopes to prove to himself and his daughter that he can amount to something on his own eccentric terms. An amateur musician, he plays the stand-up bass, and in the movie's most poignant vignette he tells his daughter of the time he pawned his instrument and lost hope until he was able to retrieve it.
The treasure in question is a chest of gold doubloons supposedly buried in the area by a 17th-century Spanish explorer whose journals Charlie studied while institutionalized. He is convinced he cracked a secret code in the journals that will lead him directly to the treasure. Armed with a metal detector and an old map, he undertakes the quest, which eventually leads him to a Costco where he imagines he has pinpointed the cache buried six feet under the concrete floor. Still undeterred, he determines to get it.
"King of California" may look and feel realistic, but it is really a Don Quixote-like fable about nonconformity and pursuing your impossible dream to the end.