Is ‘California Split’ the best gambling movie ever?
What’s in a good gambling movie? The recipe comes down to three things, the thrill of victory, the second-hand disappointment, and the flirtation with danger.
Many movies have capitalized on the evocation of these raw emotions, allowing the viewer to play into a masochistic role while witnessing eventual self-destruction. In bigger Blockbuster hits, such as Ocean’s Eleven, the viewer is also treated to some redemption of the protagonists.
In these big-budget films, it is easy to get caught up in routing for the cheaters to win and get away with their crimes. This happy ending is far from the reality facing everyday gamblers and addicts. A typical day spent at a casino or racetrack is usually not nearly as dramatic, but would that make a good movie?
The inevitable story about how some poor soul lost everything at an online casino site is sure to hit the screens soon. With California Split, it seems that a more realistic, less-sexy depiction of gambling is actually possible and makes for great entertainment.
Into the lion’s den
We were nervous to watch California Split, as it is consistently listed as one of the all-time great gambling movies. We were afraid we would be disappointed that it wouldn’t meet our expectations.
The inevitable story about how some poor soul lost everything at an online casino site is sure to hit the screens soon – in fact, it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime if you’re looking for a place to watch it.
We must confess, we are not much of a gambler ourselves. we never remember the rules to card games, and we don’t like playing the game of chance. However, we am a sucker for the roller-coaster ride that inevitably drives the plot of a good gambling film.
We see powerful men, beautiful women, the razzle-dazzle and we want to be in that life for a moment in time. Movies such as the Ocean’s film series, Casino, Uncut Gems and Rounders have always given me that outlet to feel the thrill of the bet.
When we eventually watched California Split, we felt a welcome departure from Hollywood and an arrival into a world that actually felt familiar to me. We know these characters as a friend’s father, an ex-boss and the neighbour down the street.
The familiarity ends there, as we are also treated to a dose of time-travel, back to a time when people were called “lousy punks”, accusing their opponent of having “sour grapes” and commenting that “every woman is named Barbara.”
The beginning of the film watches like a “how to gamble” manual, and I’ll admit that although we learned a thing or two, we were misled into thinking this might be a boring film. As the camera pans around the casino, we see an entire cast of regular-looking people and not a single sequin.
The main characters are introduced as they are sitting across the table from each other. Charlie, played by the criminally underrated Elliot Gould, is the charismatic and fast-talking career gambler with nothing to lose. He is a bad influence, but a good time. Bill, played by the equally impressive George Segal, is the casual gambler with everything to lose who is looking to add a little excitement into his boring life.
You guessed it, they are a mismatch made in heaven and they eventually set out on a fun-filled, co-dependent path of mutual destruction.
This cast truly mastered the character development that went into showing the painful, yet sometimes fun, reality that is gambling addiction. Also present in this world, are wonderfully shameless prostitute sidekicks that normalize and enable Charlie and Bill’s poor decisions. These women help the viewer fall further under the spell that their lives are supposed to be seen as exciting, not sad.
This mirage is sustained through the first half of the movie where you get a bird’s eye view of gambling at casinos, horse-tracks and boxing rings. You feel the excitement as they are met with incredible winnings, and you are angry when they get robbed at gunpoint on more than one occasion. The happy shenanigans that they get themselves into only mask the rising presence of darkness that becomes a growing threat on their personal lives.
As anyone who has witnessed or experienced addiction can attest, you don’t become an addict overnight. It starts slowly, then quickly spirals out of control. You witness as Bill makes increasingly severe poor life choices and comes dangerously close to imploding his own life.
It seems that he recognized this in himself just in the nick of time, leaving the viewer with the hope that his future will be healthier than his present. Charlie, who compartmentalizes his despair, is left in a sad and hopeless state. Leaving the movie off on this note felt extremely realistic and utterly human. We think we have all sought out a “Charlie” at times in our lives when we are looking for ourselves.
Overall, we would give this film 4/5 stars. We loved the cast, the message, and the honesty. If you are into more cerebral, buddy films, then this is definitely for you. This film is also all about the gambling, it’s the ever-present star of the film, which makes it really fun to watch.
Missing from this film are the typical gangster/mafia/Russian antagonists that are in many modern gambling films and high-adrenaline action scenes, which can make the pacing a little slower at times. Less flash, more humility, but amazing quotes. Did we mention that this movie also has a short scene with a young Jeff Goldblum? Well, it has that, too, and is yet another reason to check out this classic film.
Is California Split the best gambling movie ever? That’s up to you, but we think it is solidly in our top three.