Judge Patrick Bromley rolls them bones looking for Little Joe from Kokomo, 'cause baby needs a new pair of shoes after watching this Robert Altman classic.
A jackpot of a comedy about two compulsive gamblers.
Robert Altman's 1974 comedy, California Split, is another of the quintessential director's small masterpieces. It is not one of his epic ensemble pieces, but rather a scaled-down, sharply-drawn character study within a meticulously observed society—more McCabe and Mrs. Miller than Short Cuts. The film takes place in the world of professional gambling—the race tracks, the boxing matches, the casinos and back room poker games where time and daylight vanish. Like its protagonists, two guys with uncontrollable gambling addictions, the film is fast and loose when it should be tired and sad—it's a craps table rush with a morning-after awareness.
Elliot Gould, a favorite leading man of Altman's in the '70s (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye), stars as Charlie, whom we first meet sitting in at a card game. Seated at the table across from him is Bill (George Segal, Flirting With Disaster), a magazine writer who shares Charlie's affinity for gambling on just about anything. The two men get to drinking, and then to talking, and it's not long before they've become fast friends. Bill, still attempting to maintain some semblance of a regular existence, possibly envies or admires Charlie's total lack of commitment to anything but "action"; even the two girls Charlie lives with (Gwen Welles, Nashville, and Paula Prentiss of the original The Stepford Wives), require no commitment—they're professional escorts. The friendship the two men form, and the ways in which they manage to feed their addictions, provide the basic thrust of the film. By the time a story finally does come somewhat into focus, it's really just more of the same: Bill has gotten in over his head with his bookie and needs a win to pay him back, so the two scrounge up some money and head off to Las Vegas to make one big score.
It may sound as though California Split lacks much of a narrative focus, but that's only halfway true. Altman's focus here has never been sharper, though it may not be on a conventional dramatic narrative—it's on these two men and the lifestyle that they don't so much choose as have in their blood. I've taken Altman to task before for being too distant from his subjects or too meandering in his storytelling, but maybe here storytelling isn't the point. Or maybe it is—maybe every new morning, every new evening, every new bet is its own story. The through line works because of the performances by Gould and Segal, two actors once thought of as leading men (Gould especially), now relegated to character work on sitcoms. Both actors seem to have the same thing to offer—thick features on faces that scream "experience," sad-sack physicality coupled with con artist's energy. That they manage to create two very different characters in California Split is no small feat, essentially driving the entire film with their shuffling charm and twitchy chemistry. The pairing alone should make California Split required viewing.
The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The Gambler, Owning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.
California Split finally arrives on DVD—after far too long a wait—courtesy of Sony (formerly Columbia); with that in mind, the best thing I can say about the disc is that I'm glad the often-maligned studio didn't totally screw it up. The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It's far from perfect and shows a great deal of wear, but it's passable—this is a case where beggars can't be choosers. The extra channel in the Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack doesn't really provide any improvement over a standard 2.0 track, leaving the disc's audio capabilities somewhat wanting—more than once, I had to activate the subtitles to pick up on some of Altman's typically dense background chatter. There's a feature-length commentary track included, recorded by Altman, Gould, Segal, and writer Joseph Walsh (who also has a small role as Segal's bookie, Sparkie); though it's not one of the best commentaries ever recorded, there's no denying the thrill of hearing this group together, reflecting on a truly underrated classic. A couple of bonus trailers round out the disc's extras.
At the heart of California Split is addiction and exhaustion. Bill shows more signs of the latter, as he is the only one who shows any kind of awareness of his own predicament—maybe because he's still going through the motions of a real life, keeping normal hours and holding down a day job. Only Bill is able to stand outside of himself, seeing his situation as potentially problematic (especially when he runs into trouble with his loan shark) and thinking that if he can just win enough money to get ahead, he can walk away from gambling. As we know, that's next to impossible—Bill is chasing a ghost. It isn't about money for Charlie. That's why he's able to walk away from the potentially bigger score—typically the undoing of the movie gambler—in favor of keeping his take to make it last even longer at the track. It isn't about winning at all; only the need to keep going. Winning matters only because it allows him to continue gambling. Does that make him more tragic than Bill, or less? It depends on how you look at it.
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