The Best Movie Critic + review

Watch This Instantly: California Split

In cards as in life, sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re not. Robert Altman’s 1974 poker opus California Split explores that intangible, soaring feeling of being on a winning streak, and the sucker-punch when you “lose it” for no apparent reason. Beyond that, California Split doesn’t have much going on by way of plot. Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliot Gould) are beat up after a poker game when they're suspected of cheating. They become fast friends, they win some money gambling, they lose some money gambling, Charlie lives with some hookers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles) who come and go, and they get drunk a lot. That’s about it. California Split’s simplicity is its greatest asset; I had more fun watching these characters shoot the shit for two hours than I’ve had watching any movie so far this year. Watching an Altman movie is always a gamble: you might get something populist and fun like M*A*S*H, or you might get something heady and difficult like 3 Women. I feel confident recommending California Split to anyone. It is the most casually entertaining Altman movie I’ve seen.

California Split succeeds due to the outstanding performances by its actors. Segal, Prentiss, and Welles are all memorable in their respective roles, but Elliot Gould completely owns this movie. Professional card shark Charlie teeters between skeezy and endearing. Rather than treating the role as a careful tightrope walk, Gould’s performance suggests that it’s possible to be both entirely a slimeball and entirely a sweetheart simultaneously. Charlie is the type of guy you know is going to be trouble, but can't stay away from because he's too much damn fun. Elliot Gould in California Split should be a touchstone for the kind of roles and performances that are described as being “like a force of nature.” He’s an ADD Tasmanian Devil. He never stops talking once for the duration of the movie, a feat all the more admirable because the dialogue was more than likely ad-libbed. Gould’s performance makes the most mundane scenes and sequences enrapturing. I cannot say enough good things about Elliot Gould in this movie. It is simply one of my favorite bits of acting.

This was Joseph Walsh's first script. Before Altman came on board, Walsh was working with Steven Spielberg as potential director, of all people. That would have been a completely different movie, and I venture to guess not as good of one. Imagine his shock when Altman came into the picture, tearing the script to shreds, allowing his actors to improvise the entire movie. In the end, California Split comes off as if there is no script, as if the camera is just wandering about aimlessly and hones in on Bill and Charlie only because theirs is the most interesting conversation in the room. This is of course exactly what makes the movie so damned compelling, but I can imagine Walsh must have been a little baffled.

By the end of things, Bill and Charlie are down on their luck and racking up debt, so they decide on a kamikaze all-or-nothin’ trip to Reno. For as loose and free as Altman’s early 70s movies were, the director fiercely controls the mood in this final sequence. There is nothing tangible about luck. You can’t hold it. You can’t see it or hear it. Nevertheless, through Altman’s direction and Gould and Segal’s masterful performances, we know when Bill and Charlie have it, and we know when they should cash in the chips.

I got lucky the night I stumbled onto California Split. I was planning to watch the more celebrated early 90s Altman ensemble piece Short Cuts, but my BluRay player didn’t appreciate the profoundly scratched DVD. Out of the handful of Altman movies streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly, this is the one we went with. We recommend tons of movies in the “Watch THIS Instantly” column, but I highly recommend you check this one out as soon as humanly possible. California Split is a lost classic, and as it won’t be available on DVD anytime soon, do yourself a favor and watch it on Netflix while you can.

Oh, and I still have no clue what a “California split” is.

Magic Moment: The stick-up scene. Charlie and Bill have just won big when they’re held up at gunpoint in the parking lot. Though Bill wants to give the robber the money, Charlie sweet talks him into only taking half. Un-fucking-believable.

-Ben

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