Thursday 25 August 2016

Movie Review: California Split (1974)

A slice-of-life film set in the world of pitiful men succumbing to a life of continuous gambling, California Split suffers from a vague structure, less than compelling plot and loud overlapping dialogue. But once the story finally finds an anchor, both the drama and the level of engagement improve.

In Los Angeles, Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) meet at a poker game and establish a loose friendship based on their mutual love of gambling. Charlie has no expectation of a life outside gambling and will gamble on anything at anytime, maintaining an easy going, roll-with-the-punches (sometimes literally) attitude. Bill is more serious and intense, struggling to balance a career with his increasingly dominant gambling habit. Charlie introduces Bill to his friends, the rather dimwitted prostitutes Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles).

Just as Bill starts to enjoy Charlie's regular company, the latter suddenly disappears. Left on his own, Bill freefalls into a full-fledged gambling addiction and finds himself deep in debt with his bookie Sparkie (Joseph Walsh, who also wrote the script). Upon Charlie's return, Bill is determined to prove himself a winner, and plans an all-or-nothing gambling trip to Reno.

Directed by Robert Altman in his trademark off-handed style, California Split takes a long time to find traction. Patience is rewarded once the characters are belatedly defined, but while Bill's downward spiral does engage, an element of vague tedium permeates proceedings. The technique of having multiple loud conversations overlapping in the same scene quickly grows tiresome, and it takes Altman the best part of an hour to be done with introducing the characters in a freewheeling first half that often dips into structural sloppiness.

The second half is much better. Once Bill find his rock bottom and starts to understand that just like gambling, Charlie's friendship comes with no guarantees, the film latches on to a theme. The trip to Reno turns into an expedition to prove that at least one winning streak resides in every gambler. Altman and Walsh then nail the climax, gambling emerging as more about self-definition and less about winning and losing.

The film's aesthetic accurately captures the depressing surroundings in which gambling thrives. Far from the glittery razzle dazzle marketing image of gambling, Bill and Charlie spend large chunks of their days and nights in smoke-filled windowless and featureless rooms, filled with desperate, unsavory souls intent on drowning their reality in pursuit of cheap riches.

George Segal and Elliott Gould do what is expected, the film's easy-going tone suiting both actors but also not providing any highlight opportunities for them to shine. Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as the sweet but messy roommate hookers add to the general milieu of losers getting by as best as they know how. Jeff Goldblum makes a brief early career appearance.

California Split is half of a good film, the early clumsiness offset by a late winning hand.

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