American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Accompanying this review is a photograph of Michael Douglas looking like Whiskers McCrazy. Why do people who look like this resent being treated as if they look like this? Security guards are attracted to him like bears to honey. Did it occur to anyone that "King of California" might have been funnier if he'd been groomed like the tycoons he's played in all those corporate roles, his hair slicked back like Pat Riley's?
To be sure, it would be hard to explain how his character, Charlie, got the wardrobe and the grooming in the institution he has just been discharged from, but that could be part of the fun: "I cut my hair in a mirror with a nail clipper, and didn't you ever see one of those prison-break movies where they make Nazi uniforms out of old blankets?" He would be explaining that to his 16-year-old daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been living parentless at home for the last two years; her mother walked out some time ago, and she keeps child welfare off her back by convincing each set of authorities that she is actually with the other parent. That's a confusing sentence, but then it's an explanation intended to confuse.
Meanwhile, she works overtime at McDonald's, still somehow affords the expense to live in their increasingly run-down house, and acts like she is levelheaded and competent, even if she's scared. She's unsettled that her strange father has reappeared, and it's obvious he is less prepared to make survival decisions than she is. He's manic-depressive and has been busy studying ancient documents that convince him a treasure in gold was buried by early Spanish conquistadors somewhere near where they are now, in Santa Clarita, Calif. He obtains a metal detector, and enlists poor Miranda in a obsessive search that takes them through parking lots and down the sides of highways.
Their search is at first fruitless, but Charlie remains undaunted, and Miranda gamely goes along. There is something quietly hypnotic about his quest that begins to win her over into the delusion that he just possibly might be right. Of course, he could be wrong, too, but at least their mission gives them a purpose. Using the metal detector and surveying instruments, he convinces himself he has found the gold, which is now buried under the aisle of a Costco. Have you ever seen a guy like this using a metal detector in a Costco? I actually think I may have. Just field-testing it, maybe. Exploiting his daughter's talent as a minimum-wage employee, Charlie persuades her to get a job at the Costco and steal a key. And then, one dark night ...