In the 1970s, Elliott Gould and Robert Altman were an unbeatable team. They first worked together on M*A*S*H, a savage satire of the military, then again on a radical, contemporary reworking of Raymond Chandler's novel, The Long Goodbye, and finally completed the hat trick with California Split, an ode to obsessive gamblers. For years, this film has been relegated to obscurity, showing up occasionally on TV and tied up in legal issues over the music which delayed its release on DVD. Finally, all of these entanglements have been resolved and the movie is presented the way it was meant to be seen.
California Split is one of Altman's trademark character-driven films. It is less concerned with plot than behaviour as we watch the friendship between Bill and Charlie develop over a mutual love of gambling. As the film progresses and the two men hang out more, Bill starts to become more addicted to the gambling lifestyle. He blows off work early to meet Charlie at the track and sells his possessions for money. Bill and Charlie are gambling addicts who ride the high arcs and the low valleys, never passing up a bet. At a boxing match they put money on the outcome of the fight with a fellow spectator.
Those who know Elliott Gould and George Segal only from their contemporary sitcom appearances (Friends and Just Shoot Me, respectively), should see California Split if only to see these guys in their prime and working with a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Gould and Segal have never been better and play well of each other. There is good chemistry between them as Gould plays the more experienced gambler in contrast to Segal's more naïve one.
Altman fans will enjoy the audio commentary included on this DVD. It features the director, the film's screenwriter Joseph Walsh, Gould and Segal. They point out that all the extras in the opening sequence were ex-drug addicts. Altman and Walsh talk in detail about the filmmaking process with the latter pointing out the authenticity of the gambling lifestyle as depicted in the movie. Everyone recounts amusing anecdotes on this relaxed, informative track.
California Split is not afraid to show the ugly side of gambling. Bill sells his car and his possessions for a big poker game in Reno. Charlie exacts a rough, bloody revenge on the guy who mugged him at the beginning of the movie. These are not always likeable guys and to Altman's credit he doesn't try to romanticize or judge them, leaving that up to the audience. California Split is arguably Altman's loosest film in terms of plot and one of the richest in terms of character and observing their behaviour.