5 June 2007 | evanston_dad
Altman's Warm Up to "Nashville"
Robert Altman returns to one of his favorite subjects -- men behaving badly -- in this rather slight 1974 effort. George Segal and Elliott Gould play chronic gamblers who meet by chance in a gaming room and embark upon a friendship founded entirely on each man's desire to seek out the next sure thing. They head to Reno, where Segal falls into an amazing streak of luck and wins hundreds of thousands of dollars.....and then the movie just sort of ends, not because the story itself reaches any sort of natural conclusion, but more because Altman runs out of things to say about it.
Like many of Altman's films, "California Split" isn't as interested in telling a story as it is in establishing a tone, and that it does wonderfully. The ending does feel anti-climactic and abrupt, but then again, this is the tale of a gambling addict, whose whole existence consists of looking for and finding opportunities to feed his addiction. That Segal falls into a tired stupor after winning big, and experiences a glum letdown instead of the euphoria any normal person would feel from winning that much money, feels right for someone with an addiction. The obsession isn't with the catch, but with the chase.
I think Segal is the weaker of the two lead actors, though he's got the larger role. He plays up the comic elements in the film too broadly, whereas Gould feels more at home with Altman's sarcastic, off-the-cuff sense of humour. The first time I saw this, I thought there were distinct homoerotic undertones, and I felt that again after a second viewing. Segal obviously has feelings of inadequacy that his gambling helps him overcome, or at least forget. From where does that sense of inadequacy spring? Several moments in the film -- mention of a failed marriage, his reaction to someone calling him a "faggot," an aborted attempt at lovemaking with a ditzy hooker -- suggest that Segal's character has homosexual tendencies that he's trying to suppress, or at the very least that his shaky sense of his own manhood suggests to HIM that he has homosexual tendencies.
This isn't really fleshed out in the movie, but then nothing else is either. "California Split" feels like a warm up to Altman's masterpiece, "Nashville," released a year later, but it doesn't have that movie's sense of scope or amazing cast of characters, so it feels underdeveloped and lightweight.
Still, it kept me interested for 105 minutes, and it is a fascinating look into the chronic gambler's mind, if nothing else.