It doesn’t get more “Altmanesque” than California Split (1974), one of prolific director Robert Altman’s many films from the seventies. Positively swimming in his signature elements—ambient noise, overlapping dialogue, rambly improvisation—it’s not like to win over new fans, but it’s a moderately interesting watch for viewers already converted to Altman’s unique sensibility.
Bill Denny (George Segal) is a hard-luck writer with a weakness for gambling. This vulnerability gets worse when he spontaneously bonds with Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould), a carefree pro gambler with an upbeat leash on life. Charlie doesn’t always win, but he has an infectious way of rolling with the punches, and Bill falls pleasantly into his orbit. Their friendship, which later involves Charlie’s prostitute roommates Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles), seems like a boon at first, but as Bill is swept up in the thrill of his sleazy, new lifestyle, he starts to go off the rails—culminating in a risky, all-or-nothing binge.
There isn’t a ton of plot to California Split, and aspects of it certainly haven’t aged well. But it does possess that appealingly random, ramshackle seventies filmmaking approach that lets the material breathe in interesting ways. Gould and Segal have a grand old time ad libbing their way through numerous encounters. Overall, the performers are perhaps a bit too…calculatedly over-spontaneous? It’s a risk of Altman’s approach that the actors often get overly showy—here, at times, unconvincingly so. Even so, it’s a nice antidote to the mechanistic beats of the modern blockbuster, and while the meandering journey does try the patience, it does pay off in the two stars’ final interaction, which draws the film’s random-seeming moments thematically together. Not an exceptional example of his work, but an interesting one, worth watching for Altman fans.