A Movie A Day: CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978)
Screw the Oscars, screw the Academy Awards. Screw me, Sidney. Please. Please.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Here we are at the second to last A Movie A Day, what Herc would call penultimate, and the final film in nearly a work-week worth of Neil Simon movies: CALIFORNIA SUITE. We follow Simon, of course, as well as Walter Matthau and director Herbert Ross over from yesterday’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS.
Can I begin by saying how weird it is to watch a Neil Simon story that doesn’t take place on the East Coast? Something just feels wrong about that… And this story is much bigger in scope than most of Simon’s material, so it was a fascinating one to end on. It was no less witty, sharp, funny and entertaining, but it felt like a horse of a different color so to speak.
The structure on this thing is bizarre and a bit ahead of its time. Essentially it’s about a few different unrelated groups staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel during Oscar weekend. Each group has its own story and we get what almost comes off as a series of short films as we watch the film unfold. That’s not what makes it bizarre, it’s that Ross and Simon break up these different vignettes in an odd way.
He intercuts all their introductions, which is to be expected, but in a weird decision he further intercuts random, unconnected moments from other stories right smack dab into the story they’re focusing on.
For instance, the first real story we get is Jane Fonda playing a cynical, venom-spewing New Yorker staying at the hotel. She chased her 17 year old daughter to Los Angeles after learning the girl ran away from home to see her father, who left 9 years previous. Alan Alda plays this man and their story focuses on their discussion on where their daughter stays.
But right in the middle of that, they’ll cut to a random bit of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor as two Chicago doctors on a vacation from hell, then back again.
They don’t really keep this up past the first story, I just found it odd.
So, you have the bitter ex-wife revealing her vulnerabilities and showing us a brief glimpse of her humanity with the Fonda/Alda story. And you also have the Bill Cosby/Richard Pryor story which was essentially ripped off years later for NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION. There’s also the British actress who was nominated and her husband Maggie Smith/Michael Caine story and the old Jewish guy who cheats on his wife Walter Matthau/Elaine May story.
Let me break them up by story.
BILL COSBY/RICHARD PRYOR
I shortly came to realize that each vignette represented a different form of comedy. The Cosby/Pryor story is slapstick. They’re two doctors traveling with their wives, roadtripping it to Los Angeles and they run into one hellish situation after another. It starts with car trouble that goes from a simple overheating to being locked out to a real wreck and doesn’t get any better when they try to check into the hotel and realize the reservation got fucked up.
Cosby and his wife are good, but Pryor and his wife were somehow left out, so they settle on a small room that is “undergoing minor repairs.” The first glimpse we get of it is with about a foot of water as a plumber is trying to stop the toilet from geysering all over their small, shoe-box room. Of course Cosby and his wife have a luxury suite.
This lead to a lot of bickering, naturally. Turns out Cosby is kind of a penny-pincher and keeps a running tab on what Pryor owes him and it reaches a point where everybody is injured and fighting, a slapstick set piece that’d make Jerry Lewis pop a boner.
What’s really interesting to me about this segment is that Simon didn’t write these characters as black. Their race has absolutely nothing to do with the story, which was a big surprise having two outspoken personalities, especially in this era. Their characters could have been white, Latino, Asian, Arabian, Indian… it doesn’t matter. It’s really just a character study and by far the absolute funniest of the segments.
Pryor and Cosby are awesome together, both giving hilarious performances. The way they play off each other, especially as the tension grows makes it impossible not to laugh. Also Ross’ comedy directing is the best here, using editing and angles to sell gags… like them being locked out of the car then cutting to a profile shot of Cosby driving, the driver’s side window cracked with a giant hole through it. That kind of thing.
JANE FONDA/ALAN ALDA
I already told you guys the main gist of this segment. Of all the segments this one is the most emotionally charged, yet it’s also the most cynical. Fonda is very much a bitter pill here, disgusted by the changes in her ex-husband (Alda), who has moved away from the East Coast and mellowed out… and, you know… became a decent human being.
Fonda retained custody of their little girl, but was too entrenched in her socialite elite life to pay her much attention. Fed up, the girl runs to California to live with her father and Fonda follows her ready to use all her Washington and New York connections to enforce her legal custody over her teenage daughter.
She does her damndest to bait Alda, but he doesn’t play that game anymore and him not fighting back really throws her for a loop. What follows is her tough exterior cracking a bit and her real fears showing through the cynicism and overall bitchiness.
WALTER MATTHAU/ELAINE MAY
This episode is a lot like the Pryor/Cosby one in that much of it is physical comedy, but in a much different way. This isn’t slapstick, but the story of a good family man out for a nephew’s bar mitzvah... the dude has a skeazy brother who gets him drunk and buys him a young, blonde hooker.
The physical comedy is trying to hide the blonde girl who is incredibly passed out (she finished off a whole bottle of tequila by herself) from his wife, who is newly arrived.
Matthau plays this guy as so likable and atypical of the cheating asshole husband that you’re actually rooting for him to get away with cheating on his really nice wife (played by Elaine May director of previous AMAD MIKEY & NICKEY and of the world-famous ISHTAR).
Because he’s not the typical adulterer Matthau is fairly inept at lying to his wife, coming up with the lamest excuses for why she can’t go into the bedroom part of the suite (he was sick and threw up) and can’t figure out how to sneak the unconscious woman out of the room. He ultimately decides to hide this naked girl in his bed, making the bed up around her so it just looks crumpled up. You can imagine his panic when his wife says she wants to take a nap.
Matthau’s comic timing is incredible here and Elaine May gets a real meaty character to play around with, especially in the second half of the story, but as a whole the thing didn’t really gel for me. I like that it’s not the typical cheater story and I enjoyed every minute of it, but it didn’t seem to all come together in the end like it should have. It almost felt like we missed one important scene bridging us to the final moments of his story.
MICHAEL CAINE/MAGGIE SMITH
Next to the Pryor/Cosby scene this is my favorite of the movie. I think this one even edges out the slapstick hilarity of the vacation from hell. The type of comedy here is very British, naturally, with Maggie Smith playing a well respected British actress who was nominated for an Oscar. She travels to LA with her partner, the suave and dry Michael Caine.
Smith is a ball of nerves and self-doubt. She’s not all that confident in the movie she’s being nominated for, but she’s terrified of losing, too. Caine on the other hand seems to be enjoying the ride. We don’t really get if they’re married or not, but they’re definitely together.
They’re not exactly mean to each other, but they trade barbs… in a loving way. It’s hard to explain, but the way they react to each others’ dry sarcasm isn’t to get offended… it’s almost as if that’s their own secret language.
We come to find out a secret about Caine that is a bit out of left field, but gives us a genuinely complex relationship between these two people who are both completely wrong for each other and soul mates.
Of all the stories, I think this one balances what I love about Neil Simon the best. It’s funny, genuine, sad, hopeful and bitingly sarcastic, but ultimately full of hope and cautious optimism.
Final Thoughts: The movie is a tad uneven, but what works really works. I was gut-laughing throughout. None of the stories are duds and every single cast member puts in a terrific performance. It’s a truly great ensemble piece. I’m going to have to seek out the Herbert Ross films I haven’t seen because I’ve been really impressed with his work on this film, THE GOODBYE GIRL and THE SUNSHINE BOYS.
And the final A Movie A Day title:
A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977)
And that leaves only one. AMAD comes to a close tomorrow with WW2 epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR starring everyone who was ever in a movie. See you folks tomorrow for that one.
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
November 7th: Libeled Lady
November 8th: Up The River
November 9th: Doctor Bull
November 10th: Judge Priest
November 11th: Ten Little Indians
November 12th: Murder On The Orient Express
November 13th: Daniel
November 14th: El Dorado
November 15th: The Gambler
November 16th: Once Upon A Time In America
November 17th: Salvador
November 18th: Best Seller
November 19th: The Holcroft Covenant
November 20th: Birdman of Alcatraz
November 21st: The Train
November 22nd: Gunfight At The O.K. Corral
November 23rd: Mystery Street
November 24th: Border Incident
November 25th: The Tin Star
November 26th: On The Beach
November 27th: Twelve O’Clock High
November 28th: Gentleman’s Agreement
November 29th: Panic In The Streets
November 30th: The Hot Rock
December 1st: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
December 2nd: The Day of the Dolphin
December 3rd: Carnal Knowledge
December 4th: The Cincinnati Kid
December 5th: Pocketful of Miracles
December 6th: Mikey & Nicky
December 7th: Two-Minute Warning
December 8th: The Sentinel
December 9th: How To Steal A Million
December 10th: What’s New Pussycat?
December 11th: Being There
December 17th: The Party
December 18th: Casino Royale
December 19th: The Stranger
December 20th: Brother Orchid
December 21st: The Petrified Forest
December 22nd: Moontide
December 23rd: Notorious
December 24th: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
December 25th: The High Commissioner
December 26th: The Silent Partner
December 27th: Payday
December 28th: A Stranger Is Watching
December 29th: The New Kids
December 30th: Serial
December 31st: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
January 1st: Irma La Douce
January 2nd: The Prisoner of Second Avenue
January 3rd: The Goodbye Girl
January 4th: Lost In Yonkers
January 5th: The Sunshine Boys
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Jan. 8, 2009, 4:13 a.m. CST
...by far the most consistently interesting article on this site.
Jan. 8, 2009, 4:28 a.m. CST
One of my fav war movies. I hope you enjoy it matey. To me it's one of the best things that Anthony Hopkins & Sean Connery has ever done.
Jan. 8, 2009, 4:47 a.m. CST
walter matthau has a beer and cheets on his wife?
Jan. 8, 2009, 5:16 a.m. CST
I'd watch it just for the cast, even if it wasn't a an NS film. Fonda, Caine, Pryor, Matthau, Smith, Crosby...that's 6 Legends right there...not too mention the likes of Alda given support.
Jan. 8, 2009, 5:26 a.m. CST
and not the worst Simon put to screen, but not the best either. So basically what I'm saying is Quint is right, it's uneven but funny with a great cast
Jan. 8, 2009, 6:39 a.m. CST
by Motoko Kusanagi
One of my all-time favorites.
Jan. 8, 2009, 7:22 a.m. CST
If so, wow.
Jan. 8, 2009, 8:55 a.m. CST
Like many others around here I think it is the best thing going on AICN right now.
Jan. 8, 2009, 9:45 a.m. CST
Quint, this was a good feature. I enjoyed it a lot. I saw a lot of good movies and a few bad ones over the last few months based on the reviews. I would enjoy seeing AMAD 2 sometime in the future.
Jan. 8, 2009, 9:55 a.m. CST
Jane Fonda was the original celebrity turned fitness instructor. She pretty much revoulutionized the videotape, exercise at home obsession in the 80s. Every fat, suburban mom had her tape. This pretty much changed her perception from "Hanoi Jane" to the aerobics instructor.
Jan. 8, 2009, 10:08 a.m. CST
She'll always be that to me. Tokyo Rose went to prison for treason. Hanoi Jane made fitness videos. Go figure.
Jan. 8, 2009, 10:41 a.m. CST
by I am the most horrible
When I was a kid that scene stuck with me and gave me a pretty good case of the willies...I'd forgotten about it til I saw this post. Eush.
Jan. 8, 2009, 11:14 a.m. CST
I'm sorry to see this column end. It was so informative and a movie geek's dream. Very, very well done. Thank you so much.
Jan. 8, 2009, 11:43 a.m. CST
by I am the most horrible
Burn out? I agree this is a great column and would love to see it continue. I think it could sustain its own site. Take a break and consider doing it again.
Jan. 8, 2009, 12:59 p.m. CST
I thought it was supposed to run for a year? What happened? I understand if you need a vacation, Quint, but if I were Harry I'd really try to find a solution to keep AMAD running. Why not find another writer to fill in, or just rotate writers every month? AMAD is, without a doubt, the best feature on this site right now, and the most pure expression of movie-love. I've discovered several obscure and excellent films through this column... I sure wish you guys could keep it up. If not, well... Thanks for 'Race with the Devil' and 'The Silent Partner'.
Jan. 8, 2009, 1:02 p.m. CST
Firstly Quint I've really enjoyed these reviews. Not just coz I'm in agreement with most of what you've written, it's just that most movie writing misses the point in that unless you can convey the pure joy of a moment of cinema what's the reason to write. I'm a huge fan of Danny Peary and his cult movies book and I feel you have similar skill in writing reviews for movies that have already been reviewed. Thanks it's been a pleasure. Anyway I haven't seen this flick in about 20 years but I howling with laughter at the Cosby and pryor scenes and not much else other than a fortyish jane Fonda in bikini! Shame cosby and pryor never teamed up again.
Jan. 8, 2009, 1:16 p.m. CST
Outstanding Hollywood Murder Mystery with James Mason, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and James Coburn. Written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Wonderfully written with the right amount of cynicism on Hollywood.
Jan. 8, 2009, 1:21 p.m. CST
I'd forgotten Ross directed that! Brilliant flick. Written by Perkins and Sondheim.
Jan. 8, 2009, 6:49 p.m. CST
whatever the others say
Jan. 8, 2009, 8:24 p.m. CST
I actually feel depressed that the column is ending. (sigh) You've done a great job, Quint. It truly is one of the best things ever to be on AICN. I can only hope you'll come back someday, or like someone else mentioned, another would pick up the baton--lookin' at your Mori. Maybe there are future column details mentioned elsewhere I'm missing. <p> Yes, The Last of Sheila is terrific and waaaay overlooked.
Jan. 9, 2009, 5:24 p.m. CST
Actually Cosby and Pryor appeared together in "Uptown Saturday Night", but that was nowhere near as good as their work together in "California Suite". Hilarious!
Jan. 9, 2009, 6:18 p.m. CST
And found it very engaging. I particularly liked the back and forth between Fonda and Alda. Really top notch work from both actors.
Jan. 11, 2009, 9:05 a.m. CST
Very funny, very sad.
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