California Split is Robert Altman's take on the classic buddy movie. It tells the story of two hard-core gamblers, Bill Denny, played by George Segal, and Charlie Waters, played by Elliott Gould, who, after a chance meeting, take off on a long and unexpectedly successful spree binge that takes them from their native Los Angeles to a high-stakes poker game in Reno.
I love this picture, even though, as I explain below, Altman is something of an acquired taste. The first point is that because Altman cares about actors, he gets great performances from them. California Split is worth watching simply to see the extraordinary by-play between George Segal and Elliot Gould. They obviously liked working with each other, and they portray realistically idiotic and lovable louts, incapable of maintaining serious lives, relationships or jobs because the gambling gets in the way. Maybe the best-known scene in the movie is one in which these two addled and somewhat drunken dopes try to recall the names of Disney's seven dwarves. It's a very short scene, but it is poignant and funny at the same time, which is the tone of the best part of this picture.
The other remarkable thing is how brilliantly Altman captured the world of small-time gamblers. This movie was made in 1974, long before the World Series of Poker became a staple of ESPN, when hard-core gambling was restricted to tiny corners of the nation. The verisimilitude of the casino and bar scenes is so terrific its as if he used no actors at all, just went into the casinos and started shooting. Altman got it all, the smoke, the crazy characters, the sleaze, and oh yes, the insane excitement of winning.
The rap on Altman is that he couldn't tell a story, and there's some merit to the charge. In truth, Altman, who grew up in the television business, was completely capable of telling a story, it just wasn't his primary interest. Altman is more interested in his characters, and how they interact with each other, than with producing classic Hollywood story-arc movies. To some extent, all of his movies contained an at-best loosely connected series of vignettes, rather than traditional tight plotting. In his most commercially successful movies, like Nashville and M*A*S*H, there was just enough story line to carry audiences; in other movies, and California Split falls into this category, the story line is either so weak or so implausible that audiences didn't like the movies he made, because they seemed shapeless. But the point is, you don't watch his movies for the plot lines; there's always Bruckheimer and Simpson for that. You watch Altman movies because he gets these fabulous performances out of actors, and because he takes you places other people can't or won't. If you like movies, you won't regret watching California Split.