California Split

1974, Movie, R, 108 mins

Review

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Elliot Gould and George Segal make a great comic team in Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT, a cheerfully discursive tale of compulsive gamblers which is filmed in the director's loosest and most imaginative improvisatory 1970s style.

After winning big in an LA poker parlor, compulsive gambler Charlie Waters (Elliot Gould) is accused by another player named Lew (Edward Walsh) of being in cahoots with the dealer Bill Denny (George Segal). After the game, Charlie runs into Bill in a bar and they get drunk together, but as they're leaving, Lew and some friends beat them up and steal Charlie's winnings. Charlie takes Bill to his house, which he shares with prostitutes Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles). The next day, Charlie talks Bill into leaving his job and going to the racetrack with him. Charlie picks a winner and he and Bill celebrate that night with Barbara and Susan by going to a prizefight, where they win more money, but are robbed in the parking lot.

When Bill's bookie Sparkie (Joseph Walsh) starts hounding him for the large amount he owes, Bill plans to go to Reno to play in a high-stakes poker game and sells his car and other possessions to get a stake for the game. Charlie also raises some money and convinces Bill to let him be his partner. In Reno, Bill stays sober and wins $18,000 playing poker, which he then parlays into $82,000 playing blackjack, roulette, and craps. After splitting the total with the ecstatic Charlie, Bill becomes inexplicably depressed and heads back to LA, leaving the mystified Charlie alone at the casino.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT is as charming and rambling as its two irresponsible protagonists, the carefree slob Charlie and the reserved and uptight Bill. The film is one of Altman's lesser efforts, but his unique directorial technique and masterly observational style makes it totally enjoyable from beginning to end. Every scene is enriched by Altman's dense use of sound, with overlapping dialogue and snippets of background conversations creating a sense of truth and making every character, no matter how small, seem real. Phyllis Shotwell's jazzy piano ballads are also cleverly integrated into the soundtrack and comment on the action, culminating with her appearance at the casino in Reno. Visually, Altman uses the widescreen frame not to make beautiful compositions, but to set up a large-scale canvas in which his ensemble cast can move about freely and improvise, as he cuts back and forth between different areas of the same location and creates a perpetual dialectic between the foreground and background that lets life seep through.

Altman brilliantly captures the seedy world of his boozy small-time losers and dreamers, with its atmosphere of frenzied hope and paranoia at the various racetracks, bars, and casinos. It's a sympathetically satirical portrait, but one that's suffused with an underlying sadness that comes to the surface at the finale, when Bill is hit by an empty feeling after winning and realizes that he longer has a hunger for "the action."

A film such as this, which is essentially a series of comic vignettes without a plot, depends upon its performances, and both Gould and Segal are in top form, providing an example of impov at its best. Whether drunkenly trying to remember the names of the Seven Dwarfs, eating Froot Loops and beer for breakfast, breaking into impromptu ragtime songs, or posing as cops to scare away one of their hooker friend's transvestite clients (a hilariously funny Bert Remsen in drag), the duo are superb. Their characters (as well as the childlike Barbara and Susan, marvelously played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles) are basically little kids playing adult games but refusing to grow up emotionally, until Bill leaves Charlie at the end and tells him he's going home, to which Charlie perceptively retorts: "Oh yeah, where do you live?" (Profanity, violence, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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