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An endearingly off-kilter 'King'

Evan Rachel Wood stars as the daughter to her Quixote-like father, played by Michael Douglas, in 'King of California.' Evan Rachel Wood stars as the daughter to her Quixote-like father, played by Michael Douglas, in "King of California." (first look studios and nu image films)

Ever since he played a pothead novelist in 2000's "Wonder Boys," Michael Douglas has been on a mission to goose his image. Gone is the surly moral lizard of "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" (although he may replay Gordon Gekko in an upcoming "Wall Street" sequel), replaced by an actor willing to bounce off the walls in pursuit of an acting challenge.

This is all to the theoretical good, but the movies need to be better than "King of California," a flaky, tedious, intermittently likable fable about being crazy in a crazy world.

Yes, that old biscuit. To its credit, writer-director Mike Cahill's debut film - coproduced by an old film-school friend, "Sideways" director Alexander Payne - doesn't turn its bipolar central character into a stick figure of nobility. Charlie's too much of a pain, and, besides, Douglas is having too much fun playing him. More to the point, "California" sees Charlie through the eyes of his 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood), who's bitter that dad's insanity has forced her to be the normal one.

After a brief comic prologue, the film flashes back to Charlie's release from a two-year stay in an institution. During his absence, Miranda has dropped out of school, bought a car on eBay, and found herself a McJob. It's a marginal life but an orderly one, and the fresh chaos that is her father is signaled by a sinkful of dirty dishes that drives the girl bananas.

Wood is appealingly curt and conflicted here - much more human than her painted '60s doll in "Across the Universe" - but her performance can't help but be upstaged by Douglas's Charlie. The character's a jazz bassist when functional, and the star plays him as if bopping to a solo only he can hear. Hair a bleached-out mutt-cut, his hard chin buried beneath a wacko's beard, Douglas is starting to look uncommonly like his father, Kirk, and he works to locate the same bristling strain of madness the old man often mined.

It's a happy madness, though - Charlie's always manic, never depressive - and "King of California" garnishes it with whimsy. Convinced he knows the location of buried Spanish treasure, Charlie enlists his daughter and a former bandmate, Pepper (Willis Burks II), on a mission to dig it up from beneath the floor of the local Costco. Cahill turns the film into a cracked caper comedy with overtones of "Don Quixote" and Shakespeare's "Tempest," set to a soundtrack of ukulele, pennywhistle, and theremin.

What saves "King of California" from dying of the cutes is the father-daughter relationship at its center. Wood's Miranda is every kid who's had to parent a parent, and her willingness to follow Charlie on his "bipolar pony ride" is endearing, if increasingly hard to accept. What does one owe such a father? Enablement? Simple companionship? Miranda's willing to mistake one for the other if it keeps Charlie close at hand.

Cahill unfortunately ends the movie with a shrug - jackhammers and a river of sewage are involved, I'm afraid to say - and we're left picking up the pieces. All that lingers are vague impressions of emotional tenderness, missed opportunities, and a raging curiosity about what Michael Douglas will do next.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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King of California

Written and directed by: Mike Cahill

Starring: Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 93 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (strong language, mature thematic elements, and brief drug references)

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