A Movie A Day: CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978) Screw the Oscars, screw the Academy Awards. Screw me, Sidney. Please. Please.
Published at: Jan. 8, 2009, 4:05 a.m. CST by quint
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.