Co-starring Elliott Gould and George Segal, Robert Altman’s California Split follows a pair of gamblers as they gambol around California’s gambling halls.
It’s obvious in hindsight that Mississippi Grind is a loose remake of this 1974 story of racetracks and deadbeats. Not only does it reference California Split‘s title and poster, it also lifts entire scenes and characters exactly. Segal even looks a bit like Ben Mendelsohn. It’s actually easier to count the ways in which the two films are dissimilar. Most notably, California Split is not a road movie; it’s very much a stay-in-the-same-place movie. So where Mississippi Grind‘s storytelling had a slightly mythic quality, this feels much more lifelike.
Fed up with being given unrealistic dialogue, the actor Joseph Walsh wrote this deliberately realistic screenplay about his own gambling addiction. His friend Steven Spielberg was originally going to direct but dropped out, ultimately being replaced by Altman; a director so notoriously uncompromising that he reportedly once punched a studio executive and knocked him into a swimming pool for insisting that Altman cut 6 minutes from a film he was working on.
Under Altman’s naturalistic and cynical auteurship, the film is funny and honest in equal measure, subverting movie expectations while critiquing American society. His wide, busy compositions and trademark overlapping dialogue add to the film’s sense of reality, the latter enabled by a pioneering use of 8-track stereo sound. And while his loose approach to screenplays led to multiple clashes with Walsh, the use of improvisation enhances this authenticity further.
Here, Gould and Segal are wonderful, their multi-layered characters representing two sides of the same poker chip. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from movie helper and jazz pianist Jeff Goldblum, in his second ever film role. The movie maturely avoids pop-psychological explanations for the characters’ compulsions, or over-simplistic lessons from their behaviour. It’s a film that lays the truth out on the poker table, from its natural depiction of sex to its believable irresolution.
Altman chooses to show behaviour over conventional narrative; reality over traditional morality. This is organic, humane filmmaking, as much about Hollywood as it is about people.