California Split Film Details
Overview: When a casual gambler befriends a professional one, he begins to mirror his life, sending both deeper into the sleazy gambling world where the stakes keep getting bigger.
Tagline: …Being the story of two bet-on-anything guys who happily discover something called a “winning streak.”
Review: California Split provides a couple of stellar performances through Robert Altman’s direction. George Segal, who is an actor I’m not too familiar with (I never watched the TV show ‘Just Shoot Me’ or his other 70s movies), but here is very believable as the down-on-his-luck Bill Denny, a sometimes magazine writer who can be spotted at the track or in a poker room more often than in his office. He’s befriended by Charlie Waters (Elliot Gould), a character who is at first seemingly just that, a real ‘character’ kind of guy. Gould is terrific at playing Charlie as a fast-talking’, smooth-dealing kind of clever player, who sometimes makes bets as arbitrary as the names of the seven dwarfs. He, like Bill, makes bets and usually wins, but then still tries to talk down how much the mugger who robs him in the parking lot should take. He and Bill sort of go aimlessly around through most of the first half of the film, with the only sort of conflict coming up- as opposed to a driving force in the plot- being that Bill owes a lot of money to his bookie, which he has to earn up in Reno. By the end, however, there’s something about the gambler’s life that is left on a bittersweet note. The two lead males are contrasted against actresses Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, who are not really elaborated on much as characters aside from being possible hustlers or prostitutes of some sort. There’s even a touching, ironic scene where Welles tries to seduce Segal, but to no avail on either side. Even in the quiet scenes with the main characters, Altman and writer Walsh are adept to make these characters seem always believable, even in their seedy, desperate mannerisms and leaps of thought. They know they mindset and lifestyle of the gambler (both, according to the press notes, were affluent with not only card games but the nature of the gambling man and how he goes about his business). Sometimes the aimless quality about the first half is very funny, Gould’s performance especially as the opposite of Segal’s straight-laced and high-strung character. Other times there’s a scene or two that seem unneeded or a little oddly put in, like an inexplicable scene where a transvestite comes to call at Charlie’s place to proposition the ladies, I think, only to get swindled again by the Charlie and Bill. Such scenes though are meant for simple character lift, albeit not totally satisfying when compared to other scenes. But to see an Altman film, any Altman film, is to see a piece of what Altman at the 2006 Oscars called “one very long body of work.” In viewing California Split, I’m reminded as well of how substance, in a matter of speaking, trumps style. It’s not that Altman doesn’t have some kind of distinct visual style, in general I mean (it becomes, truth be told, more distinct in Nashville and 3 Women). But in several during his career like MASH or Prairie Home Companion, his style doesn’t go for being anything more than that of a straightforward, practically objective storyteller, getting the multi-character scenes and layered spots of dialog and conversation without getting in the way. It’s almost ironic for the sake of what’s going on; his style evokes Howard Hawks’s knack of storytelling in the visual sense, of being the unobtrusive sort. But it’s in the substance that’s different, because Altman isn’t really interested in the conventions of stories. He’s after character, mood, the little moments in the midst of conversations. He’s a great director of actors and of setting, if nothing else. For the most part, California Split is splendid at telling more about the nature of the mind-set, of the attitude and near existentialism of gambling than any specific story; there aren’t any real contrivances holding these characters to the necessities of the script. And the ending gives a few really good questions to ponder: what does winning really mean after going through so much as a loser? Is there a catharsis, or one worthwhile? Altman handles this mood and these characters like a pro, with the end result being one of the most fascinating, unconventional and entertaining films made about the small, maligned world of gamblers.
Country: United States
Duration: 108 min
Genre: Comedy, Drama
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