California Split Lets On More Than It Shows On The Outside
Some movies about poker are about high-octane spy action capers, while some movies are about the gambling life itself. Other poker films are content to just be about the people playing the game, how they deal with its intricacies and highs and lows and how those things affect their lives. It’s nothing but an examination of how one thing can weave so much influence over a handful of lives. California Split is an underrated little movie from the year 1974, a film that doesn’t often come up in reviews of the top poker titles in the past century, about how two people approach the game of poker and how they live their lives around it and in spite of it.
California Split is simply about a strange little friendship that randomly grows between Bill Denny (played by George Segal) and Charlie Waters (played by Elliott Gould) because of their shared love of the game.
Charlie is the true gambler between the two of them, who knows the ins and outs of the game. He becomes like a mentor to Bill, a person who plays but is not really a real gambler at the beginning of the movie, as he works at a magazine as his day job. The two form their friendship after playing together at the same casino table, accused by another player of collusion at a game of poker.
California Split sees the two men spend more time together. Bill, the reluctant gambler at the beginning, ends up becoming even more addicted to the hard and fast gambling lifestyle. He eventually gets into debt with his bookie, so he and Charlie pool their money to put Bill in a poker game in Reno, facing off against real-life former world champion Amarillo Slim. Bill actually wins the game, convinces himself that he’s really, really lucky at the moment, and plays other games at the casino, eventually winning more and more.
However, Bill stops at the craps table, and he comes off strangely drained by the entire experience. He decides to quit and go home after they split all his winnings. California Split ends almost the same way it begins, with Bill keeping his word and going home, leaving the gambling life behind. For his part, Charlie lets him walk away from it all while he’s ahead.
Don’t get me wrong; despite that brief description of California Split‘s plot (and whatever you may see in whatever passes as a trailer for the movie), it’s actually a comedy. It just so happens that it’s a genuinely affected comedy that knows the things and morals it wants to say. Everything might be played for laughs, but it delivers a darker, more realistic look at the way America and Americans glorify the hustle of the poker table, the sheer rush of gambling and making bets you never know you’re going to win.
The beauty of California Split, like most other reviews have touched upon, is that its director Robert Altman has managed to create a world much like the real one of our own, but everything is a means to a narrative end.
Nothing in any scene is wasted, every shot and segment is stocked with at least one carefully-realized character, so what results is a work of pure fiction that ends up seeming like a documentary if you didn’t know any better.
Every little role is a possible peek inside the many different facets of the human condition. People at the poker table hide their emotions but show more about themselves than they realize, and it’s at parts like that when you figure out that upon deeper review, everyone has their story.
California Split really does feel like a movie that’s more about people than it is the hobby of gambling. And movies like that are the best; that they promise one thing on the trailer or the poster and give you more than you bargained for. Of course, in California Split‘s case, poker and gambling and casinos may not be your interest, so it may not be accessible. But you’re here reading this review, so we’re guessing that you may have some passing appreciation for those things, at least. This movie uses that interest to hook you in deeper and try to tell you tales of people you’ll never meet. And by God, are these stories meaningful.
So should you watch California Split? If you’re looking to watch a movie that is about the thrill of playing poker, the sheer joy of outmaneuvering everyone else at the table and finishing strong with either a flashy hand or a master bluff, then no, this might not be for you. Yes, all those things are in this movie, but it’s not about the celebration of the joy of gambling. In fact, it’s the opposite. It argues that there is no joy in gambling, in the very end.
But if you’re willing to chew on a movie that says more than it shows, a movie that has a plot you’ll want to keep reviewing just to make sure you didn’t miss on anything, any little subtext that might have slipped past you the first time around, if you’re okay with discovering hidden gems, then by all means, go ahead and find a copy of California Split. It’ll never be heralded or reviewed as one of the best poker movies of all time, but I firmly believe that it deserves your attention. It would be a shame to its message if you didn’t at least try, if you consider yourself any sort of intelligent moviegoer.
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