CALIFORNIA SUITE (director: Herbert Ross; screenwriter: Neil Simon; cinematographer: David M. Walsh; editor: Michael A. Stevenson; music: Claude Bolling; cast: Jane Fonda (Hannah Warren), Alan Alda (Bill Warren), Maggie Smith (Diana Barrie), Michael Caine (Sidney Cochran), Walter Matthau (Marvin Michaels), Elaine May (Millie Michaels), Herbert Edelman (Harry Michaels), Richard Pryor (Dr. Chauncey Gump), Bill Cosby (Dr. Willis Panama), Gloria Gifford (Lola Gump), Sheila Frazier (Bettina Panama), Denise Galik (Bunny), Dana Plato (Jenny); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Ray Stark; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1978)
“The West Coast version of Plaza Suite.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A star-studded ensemble comedy filled with fast one-liners that’s based on playwright Neil Simon’s hit Broadway show. On Broadway, Simon used four short plays, which in the movie was changed into one set piece. It follows the same arc as Simon’s 1968 Broadway smash Plaza Suite, which was made into a movie in 1971. California Suite is the West Coast version of Plaza Suite. It’s awkwardly directed as a middle-class farce by Herbert Ross (“The Owl And The Pussycat”/”Play It Again, Sam”/”The Sunshine Boys”), who can’t intercut seamlessly into another story. The plot line revolves around four sets of guests at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, who arrive during a pre-Academy Awards weekend and must deal with their personal problems.
Laid-back, sporty dressed Hollywood screenwriter, the Californian Bill Warren (Alan Alda), and the embittered razor-sharp career woman, the New Yorker Hannah Warren (Jane Fonda), reunite after being divorced for nine years and fight tooth and nail with witty barbs over possession of their teenage daughter, who ran away from New York to be with dad; Bisexual antique dealer Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine) and his alcoholic quipster actress wife Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) are an eccentric British couple with kinky sexual appetites, who are staying at the hotel for the upcoming Academy Awards because wifey received an Oscar nomination; Philadelphian Marvin Michaels (Walter Matthau), attending the Bar-Mitvah of his brother’s son, has trouble explaining how a floozy blonde prostitute (Denise Galik) ended up in his bed to his much younger spouse Millie (Elaine May); And Chi town visitors Dr. Chauncey Gump (Richard Pryor) and Dr. Willis Panama (Bill Cosby), accompanied by their wives (Gloria Gifford and Sheila Frazier), have an anxiety ridden vacation that turns into a series of mishaps.
Two out of the four couple sketches work. Alda and Fonda’s tragi-comedy piece becomes the film’s centerpiece, and they put on the best performances and have the best material. While Maggie Smith is a scream as the hard-drinking actress, and her skit with Caine is easily the funniest and most touching. Unfortunately the low-comedy sit-com bedroom vignette with Matthau and May seemed strained; while clearly the worst skit was the glum Pryor and Cosby slapstick one, as their combative friend routine was hardly funny and when the black doctors start acting like savages it gives hints of being racist.
Ironically Maggie Smith won a second Supporting Oscar playing the part of the actress who fails to win the Oscar. There’s also a fine jazz score by Claude Bolling
Overall it’s a bitch-fest with all the sniping among the characters having a negative effect and things never coming together as a whole; but the four unrelated stories, though uneven and turning to mush, at least all provide some funny moments for fans of the playwright.
REVIEWED ON 6/4/2009 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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