California Split ★★★★

A deeply cynical film about two gambling addicts betting their money left and right to try and get that one big score, California Split brings together director Robert Altman with his beloved collaborator Elliott Gould once again. With neither Charlie (Gould) nor Bill (George Segal) ever knowing when to quit and always willing to risk it all at the track or in poker, California Split is a largely plotless exploration of the life of these two gamblers. But at all times, Altman approaches his subjects in a truly cynical fashion that shows just how out for themselves the duo are, irregardless of who they have waiting for them at home. Terrifically acted, directed, and incredibly fun, California Split is an unfortunately underseen film that certainly deserves more eyes and continues my personal descent into the wild world of Altman.

As with many of his works, California Split is not really about the plot. The plot merely exists as an excuse to watch these characters work and what characters they are. An odd guy who flies by the seat of his pants, Charlie Waters lives with two prostitutes. A man deeply addicted to gambling, he takes a trip to Tijuana to gamble and disappears for days in the film, solely because he had a dream that he would win. Unsurprisingly, he did not. Of the two protagonists, Charlie is arguably the more tragic one. So addicted to gambling he barely knows it, Charlie is unable to help himself. He is out for himself (cynical Altman) and leads people away from good bets to try and maximize his own winnings. The only person he is willing to split money with is Bill, but even then, he drives him hard to the point that Bill is ready to break. Now, Bill is not unwilling of course, but Charlie certainly worsens Bill's gambling issues.

Separated from his wife, always skipping out on work, and deeply addicted to gambling, Bill is slightly less tragic, if only for the ending. Having gone on a winning streak, it seems as though Bill is distraught that he has finally won a lot of money. There is no rush or need to spend it all right away like there is with Charlie. For Bill, he seems to recognize that this is the end of the line and it is time to get out before he loses more of himself. He is still a tragic figure and, though the film hints that he is not proud of himself for winning, there is hardly an indication he is done. In the world of Altman, odds are, he would eventually return to gambling. That said, he becomes slightly less tragic than his counterpart for this sort of self-awareness that he has that this whole thing has gotten out of control and winning is no cause to celebrate, given what he has lost along the way.

The cynicism of Altman is ever present with Charlie and the first two times our heroes win. Promising to run out and gamble the winnings at the track, Charlie shows no interest in stopping while at the top and is more content on feeding his need for adrenaline, even if means losing friends like Bill. Of course, him losing these winnings is never shown, but his track record indicates he will not have much success. Even if he does have success, odds are it will be stolen from him like it was in the beginning of the film twice. Even when success finds him, the world has a way of catching up to Charlie and bringing him back down to Earth. He is simply unable to maintain any success and instead forced to continue to be down on his luck without any hope for a brighter future.

The film's successes go beyond its great characters and tragic portraits of the lives of gambling addicts, however. Of course, Altman gets the best of out of his actors with Elliott Gould always at home when in an Altman film. Laid back, easy to like, and charismatic, Gould has a cool and smooth delivery at every turn that makes him oddly endearing as the loose and crazy Charlie. More of an everyman, George Segal turns Bill into a sad portrait of a man who is equally off the rails. The film also features some other Altman trademarks other than the loose plot, character study, and cynicism, as it also contains a lot of overlapping dialogue. The prominent moment being when Bill and Charlie are talking in the topless bar while a girl naked from the waist down talks to the bartender at the same time. This technique, whenever utilized, really makes everything feel more chaotic and hectic, adding an odd sort of tension to the scene. Interestingly, the film used eight-track stereo sound to do this effect and was the first non-Cinerama film to use that method.

A loose and occasionally funny, but eminently tragic look at the life of gamblers, California Split is cynical and a great character study. With two great lead performances from Gould and Segal, the film certainly deserves more eyes and also highlights that I desperately need to see more Altman.

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