Saturday 1 May 2021

Movie Review: California Suite (1978)

A tactless comedy with dashes of drama, California Suite oscillates between pompous and cretinous.

Four unrelated stories take place over one weekend at the same Beverly Hills hotel. Divorced couple Hannah (Jane Fonda) and Bill (Alan Alda) meet to discuss the future of their 17 year old daughter Jenny. New Yorker Hannah is a highly-strung news editor who thrives on prickly insults and sharp retorts, while Bill has become much more laid back since he relocated to Los Angeles. The couple bicker endlessly.

Veteran English stage actress Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) is nominated for her first Academy Award for an unworthy role in the frivolous comedy No Left Turns. Her husband Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine), an antique dealer, is her companion for the Oscar ceremony. Diana is nervous about the evening and leans on Sidney for emotional support, but all is not well in their relationship.

Marvin (Walter Matthau) is in town for his nephew's bar mitzvah. His brother Harry (Herb Edelman) is a lecherous womanizer, and arranges for a prostitute (Denise Galik) to entertain Marvin in his hotel room. The situation gets messier when Marvin's wife Millie (Elaine May) arrives the next morning.

Doctors Chauncey Gump (Richards Pryor) and Willis Panama (Bill Cosby) and their wives are on a joint vacation and getting testy. The hotel messes up their booking, with the Gumps confined to a faulty closet-sized room while the Panamas enjoy a luxury suite. The vacation goes rapidly downhill from there.

Writer Neil Simon adapted his own play, and in the hands of director Herbert Ross what may have worked on the stage flops badly on the screen. Essentially four separate 25 minute sketches populated by distinctly unlikable people, California Suite generates a couple of chuckles but otherwise curls up into a small ball and dies. 

Worst of all is the segment featuring the Black doctors played by Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Their misadventures descend into low-brow slapstick of the pathetic kind, a miserable and painful waste of talent.

Two of the other sketches are not much better. Jane Fonda and Alan Alda are forced to spout Simon's artificially agitated hyper-intellectual theatrical prose, and their incessant sniping is quickly insufferable. Walter Matthau wrings some humour from the hapless middle-aged man trying to hide a passed-out hooker from his wife, but is ultimately defeated by material stretched too thin.

Maggie Smith and Michael Caine almost save the day with the one reasonably compelling and well-written story. Actress Diana and antique dealer Sidney's marriage is complex, and made more intricate by her propensity for drama and his caustic street-smarts. They both clearly benefit from the union, but barely concealed secrets and frustrations are nibbling away at their contentment. While far from perfect and still saddled with loquacity, this episode at least creates a memorable pair. 

Maggie Smith nabbed a real Oscar for a forgettable movie in which she is Oscar nominated for a silly comedy. From the few snippets shown No Left Turns is indeed dire, but also potentially still better than California Suite.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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