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Monday, February 21, 2005

California Split
I've been receiving 5th Street magazine for the past couple of months. I don't know why, since I don't remember subscribing -- I assume the first few issues are free as a promotion. Anyway, the February issue, with Michael Madsen on the cover, had a story recommending the movie California Split, calling it "arguably the greatest poker movie ever made." (In addition to the article, a shorter 5th Street review of the film is here.) So I put the film in my Netflix queue, and on Sunday Mrs. Cheap Thrills and I watched it.

My very brief review: I did not enjoy it all that much. Two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, were very good, so I'm glad I saw the film. But the hour+ in between was pretty rough going. In addition, the film is really about gambling in general, not poker.

I will now proceed on to my longer review, in which I will reveal what little there is of a plot in this movie, so click away now if you hate spoilers.

California Split was released in 1974. It was directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliot Gould and George Segal (whose major recent role was the boss in the TV show Just Shoot Me).

The movie is a character study of two gamblers who become friends. The first half of the film follows them as they play poker and bet the ponies, pro basketball, and boxing. I think the idea is that we are supposed to be fascinated by the wild and carefree gambling lifestyle that these two share. Except that George Segal's character (Bill) is not really as carefree as Elliot Gould's (Charlie): Bill has a job he doesn't like that much, and he owes a lot of money to a loan shark. In the final third of the film, the two head up to Reno for a fairly high-stakes poker game, so that Bill can pay off this debt. They end up going on quite a run, winning at poker and several table games. But the rush of it all leaves Bill exhausted, and in the final scene of the film he tells Charlie that the gambling life is not for him.

There were two scenes I really enjoyed in the film. The first was the opening sequence, which takes place in a California card room. This scene is a snapshot of a bygone era. These were the days when only draw poker (played for either high or low) was legal in California. In addition, the players dealt themselves, rotating the deal around the table as in a home game. (I couldn't help but think of all the opportunities for cheating there must have been, but the film does not focus on that.) This scene is very realistic and the people playing poker certainly do not look like Hollywood types. This opening scene almost seems like a tourist's video recording of the spectacle that is a crowded card room.

However, this "capturing reality" style approach is employed throughout the film, and it soon began to wear on me. Altman just seemed to turn the camera on and film whatever happened -- I just don't go in for what 5th Street calls "Altman's improvisatory, free-form style." There are several scenes of Bill and Charlie hanging out at the home of two call girls that I think were supposed to funny or shocking, but just seemed pointless. For example, after staying out all night, Charlie has a breakfast consisting of Fruit Loops and a beer. I guess this was a more striking image in 1974 (4 years before Animal House) than it is now.

The movie was slow enough that B wanted to quit watching about a third of the way into it. But I persevered.

Finally, when Bill and Charlie head to Reno, things picked up a bit. Bill sits down at a high-limit 7-Card Stud game. Amarillo Slim is among the players at the table, and he has a few lines, but no poker action is actually shown. We mostly just watch Charlie as he waits anxiously for Bill outside the poker area.

When Bill comes out to tell Charlie how he's doing, there is some real tension. In fact, throughout the Reno scene, as Bill plays blackjack, roulette, and then craps, I really got caught up in the rush that Bill and Charlie were experiencing. This Reno sequence is certainly the main reason why the film gets some decent reviews -- more than any movie I've scene, it captured what it is like to be on a winning streak at a casino -- both the thrill and the edge-of-the-cliff anxiety of knowing that the streak could turn around on the next bet.

So as a film about gambling, this movie has a really great final sequence. But it is not really about poker. And the hour+ of plodding "character study" before the Reno scene was just tedious.

The final "message" of the movie -- that some people have what it takes to truly be a gambler, but most do not -- was thought-provoking enough, but it is better explored in books such as The Biggest Game in Town or even 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas. I can imagine that this kind of character study of gamblers was really remarkable in 1974, when gambling was more taboo. But in 2005 a character study of two guys who do nothing but gamble all day is just not inherently attention-grabbing. Rather than gambling being some arcane subculture, nowadays Americans regularly visit Las Vegas or a local casino precisely so that they can, for a few days each year, live out the "wild and crazy" gambler's lifestyle depicted in the film. California Split is most interesting as a precursor to the current prominence that gambling has in popular culture.

I recommend California Split to anyone who is both a film buff and a gambler, both because of the Reno sequence and because of its place in the history of films about gambling. But you should fast-forward to that final act if you start getting bored. Certainly, folks who enjoy Altman's style of movie-making might really like California Split. As for myself, I think California Split fits the cynic's definition of "classic film": One that you would like to have watched, but not one that you want to watch again.

Great review!
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