For a film that is essentially a slice-of-life movie depicting a world in which derisible men resign themselves to gambling, California Split (1974) suffers a poor plot, an elusive structure, and an overlapping conversation, but that’s just in the beginning. Once you get to the point where the story finds it, anchor, engagement, and drama become much better. It’s like traversing a desert right before you get to the oasis.
As the movie opens, we see a game of poker inside a casino in L.A. There’s Charlie Waters, the winner of the game, accused of working with the dealer, Denny, to fleece Lew, the bitter loser. Charlie and the dealer become friends later on at a local bar, and the tow gets wasted. As they head out, they cross paths with Lew, who beats them senseless and makes off with what they had won.
Charlie does not have much going for him. The one thing he is good at is gambling and loves to gamble on just about anything. He keeps things easy and rolls with the punches, in some cases quite literally. On the other hand, the friend Bill is somewhat serious – an intense soul. He is struggling to create a balance between his job and his love for gambling.
Charlie acquaints Bill with his other friends – pair of dumb sex workers named Susan and Barbara played by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss, respectively. As Charlie begins to enjoy the lots company, he goes missing. Left to his own devices, Bill drops into a dark pit of gambling addiction. He ends up in debt and owes his bookie a lot of money. Once Charlie materializes, Bill makes it his mission to prove his worth and schedules a Reno trip.
The film is the work of Robert Altman, and as usual, it features his trademark style. The film takes its damn time to achieve some traction. If you are the patient type, the characters soon define themselves. While Bill’s life begins to wash down the drain almost immediately, there’s a measure of vague dreariness. The idea that you can have several people having a conversation virtually simultaneously in one scene is tedious and tiring. It takes nearly an hour before the director introduces the characters in the first half of the movie.
The other half of the film is not bad. There’s some entertainment worth sitting through. In the next half, Bill realizes that, like gambling, hanging around Bill does not offer any guarantees. At this point, he has reached rock bottom. The director sticks to this notion and runs with it. Reno’s journey turns into an experience, and it is meant to offer proof that there is a winner in every losing gambler. The climax is an excellent piece; Walsh and Altman go to great lengths to make one thing clear – at some point, gambling has more to do with self-definition and not the pursuit for quick wealth.
Elliot Gould and George Segal give fans a great show, thanks to an easy-going craftiness that works for both characters, although it does not offer them an excellent chance to grab the spotlight.