January 11, 2013

Why is California Split the finest poker movie of all time? Because it doesn’t have any poker. That’s not a koan; it’s the truth. Portraying games on film is always a tricky business. Every sports movie has to end with The Big Game—there’s almost no way around it—and when the outcome of the story must be either “good guys win” or “good guys lose,” the screenwriter is in dangerous waters. This is why most sports movies suck, and why the few that transcend their genre are among the greatest films of all time. To wit: Bad News Bears.

(Thankfully, not every portly child athlete is so difficult to like. This kid, for instance, is amazing.)

Gambling movies should have an easier time of it. In gambling, it’s not just win or lose. You can win big or small. You can lose a little or you can lose your legs. It’s a world of possibilities. And yet, there are almost no good movies about gamblers. The best racetrack movie is The Killing, a Stanley Kubrick casino picture. The best casino movie is either a mob movie (Casino), a heist movie (Ocean’s Eleven) or a romantic comedy (The Cooler). And until yesterday, I was convinced that there is not a single good movie about playing cards. Thankfully, Bill Paxton set me straight.

When insomnia strikes, I take shelter in Turner Classic Movies—a personal security blanket shaped like Humphrey Bogart and twice as comforting. Awake and groggy early yesterday morning, I flicked through my DVR and settled on California Split, a lesser Robert Altman movie that intrigued me for three reasons:

1. Robert Altman’s worst is still better than average.

2. It starred George Segal and Elliott Gould—two of my favorite ’70s goofballs.

3. I was fucking tired and didn’t give a shit what I watched.

It was presented by Robert Osborne and an extremely awkward Bill Paxton, who introduced it with a few half-baked anecdotes, the gist of which was basically, “I am Bill Paxton and I like movies.” The movie was just as lax, and it suited my dried-out brain perfectly.

Poker movies fail because poker—as you will know if you lived through the tedious Texas Hold ‘Em fad of the middle aughts—is lame. A football movie can turn on a fifty yard touchdown pass. A baseball movie on a walk-off home run. A rollerball movie on the death of every player save James Caan. But poker is a game played by fat men who love sitting down, and the climactic moment of a poker tournament is exactly as exciting as watching a pasteboard rectangle flip over. Add to this the nauseating bro-speak that is poker lingo—bad beats, pocket rockets, going all-in—and you have a perfect recipe for tedium. High stakes poker is not this. It’s this. A movie will never work if it pretends there is something sexy about the game.

What pass for heroes in this movie are William and Charlie, a pair of gambling addicts whom we meet in a grubby poker parlor stocked with overweight rubes and blue-haired sharks. Their dynamic sells the picture. Gould is his usual slippery self, and Segal is low-key charming. Even when they win, we know they are losers—and the scary thing about watching a loser succeed is the knowledge that he’s in for a hard fall.

Though the word “addict” is never used, the subtext is clear. (Many of the extras were recruited from Synanon, an addiction treatment organization that, weirdly, later became a cult.) California Split is a clever picture of gambling’s sleazy lure. It’s not just the excitement that gets people—it’s that gambling can be a fun thing to do with your friend. Especially if your friend is as charming as Elliott Gould. William and Charlie gamble in almost every scene—on boxing, basketball, ponies and craps—but it stays low-stakes right until the end, when Segal goes to Reno hoping to escape debt through, sigh, a high-stakes poker game. I was prepared for the film to devolve into endless shots of people peeking at their cards, but I should have trusted Robert Altman. He can always be counted on to deliver us from tedium.

Rather than subject us to fifteen minutes of blistering dialogue like “Check. Check. Check. Raise twenty. Call,” the script has Segal kick Gould out of the room for the duration of the game. All of their money is tied up on the table, so Gould is forced to spend hours clowning around the hideously ’70s casino, munching on a Milky Way and playing nickel slots. Tension comes not from the action on the table, but from what’s happening on Elliott Gould’s face. Finally, Segal emerges, and we find out whether he won or lost.

If there’s ever a time to tell instead of show, it’s when “show” would mean showing us poker.

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