Film-Forward Review: [CALIFORNIA SPLIT]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Elliott Gould, center
George Segal, left
Photo: Film Forum/Photofest

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Directed by: Robert Altman.
Produced by: Altman & Joseph Walsh.
Written by: Walsh.
Director of Photography by: Paul Lohmann.
Editing by: O. Nicolas Brown & Lou Lombardo.
Released by: Sony Pictures Repertory.
Country of Origin: USA. 108 min. Rated: R.
Starring: George Segal, Elliot Gould, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Jeff Goldblum, Bert Remsen, & Jay Fletcher.

To see a Robert 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 seeing 1974’s 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 distinctive visual style. But in many cases in his career, like in MASH or even the recent A Prairie Home Companion, he is more than anything a storyteller, capturing multi-character scenes and layered dialog and conversation without getting in the way. Ironically, his style evokes Howard Hawks’ knack of unobtrusive storytelling in the visual sense. But Altman isn’t really interested in stories. A great director of actors and of setting, he’s after character, mood, and the little moments in the midst of conversation.

Opening today at New York’s Film Forum in a new print with three minutes that were cut from the DVD (because of music rights), California Split provides a couple of stellar performances: down-on-his-luck Bill Denny (George Segal), a magazine writer, who can be spotted at the race track or at a poker game more often than in his office; and Charlie Waters (Elliot Gould), a fast-talkin’, smooth-dealing hustler. In a friendship made in a smoky late night bar, they sort of go about aimlessly through most of the first half of the film, betting at the track or a boxing match, with the only sort of conflict being that Bill owes a lot of money to his bookie, which he has to try to win in Reno.

The two lead males are contrasted against actresses Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, as two prostitutes. There’s even a touching, ironic scene where the baby dollish Welles tries to seduce the sheepish Segal, but to no avail on either side. Even in the quieter scenes, Altman and writer Joseph Walsh (who also plays Bill’s bookie) are able to make these forlorn characters always believable. They know the mindset and lifestyle of the gambler. (According to the press notes, both were fluent with not only card games but knew, from their own experience, the nature of being a gambler). Sometimes the aimless quality of the first half is very funny, particularly Gould’s frenetic and breezy performance, the opposite of Segal’s straight man. There is a scene or two that seems unneeded or a little oddly out of place, like when a transvestite comes to call on the ladies, only to get swindled by the intruding Charlie and Bill. But for the most part, the film is splendid at telling more about character than any specific story. And the bittersweet ending is a near existential coda – what does winning really mean after going through a loosing streak? Is there a catharsis, or just an on-going search for more to win? The end result: one of the most fascinating, unconventional and entertaining films made about gambling. Jack Gattanella
October 13, 2006



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us