The Quarantine Stream: Roll the Dice on 'California Split'

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieCalifornia Split

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The Pitch: Robert Altman directed this shaggy tale about a couple of disheveled gamblers who bet their way across the American West, from the poker tables of Southern California to the craps tables in Reno.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Elliott Gould and George Segal are excellent as two guys who are cut from the same cloth. Gould’s character is a full-time gambler, drifting from poker to the racetrack and taking action wherever he can get it. Segal’s character is a magazine writer – keep an eye out for a lightning-quick cameo from a young Jeff Goldblum as the magazine’s editor – and he finds himself mesmerized by the gambling lifestyle; he spends the whole movie blowing off work to go hang out with Gould. It’s hard to blame him, because wouldn’t we all want to hang out with 1970s-era Elliott Gould?

While watching this, I found myself thinking a lot about Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 movie starring Adam Sandler as a compulsive gambler. California Split feels like a cinematic relative of Gems in many ways, but while the Safdies crank up the tension nearly to the breaking point, Split is not quite as interested in traversing the distance between the delirious highs and soul-shattering lows. Instead, it’s more about a lower key long game, with its protagonists making decent money and quickly getting robbed – they win some, but then they take their licks. Even when they do hit it big, Altman is able to capture the emptiness behind the temporary excitement, and while the movie itself is a relatively breezy watch, there’s a profound sadness in watching these guys constantly decide to feed their addiction instead of trying to steer away from it.

I’m a big fan of the way the film ends, which I won’t spoil here. But after reading a little about the production, it sounds like a single ad-libbed line from Gould inspired Altman to wrap the story up early, before they had filmed the original ending that was written in Joseph Walsh’s script. It’s one of those magical accidents which, I think, made the film much better (or at least more thought-provoking) than it would have been with the planned ending in place. Add this to the ever-growing list of examples of how a project can improve thanks to the ineffable alchemy that happens when creative people are in sync and firing on all cylinders.

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