A couple of days ago, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing a student-run production of Neil Simon's California Suite through Western Michigan University's Theatre Department. My school has an excellent program, so I knew the acting would be great, but I was worried about how well Simon's stuck-in-the-70's, middle-aged views of relationships and East Coast vs. West Coast views of the world would transfer with 20 year olds from the 20th century. Well, color me surprised that none of that seemed to matter and, in the hands of some gifted young actors that I hope many of you get to see some day, the play was alternately side-splittingly hilarious and heartbreakingly tender--a truly rare combination.
After having such a wonderful time at that performance, I decided to take a gander at Herbert Ross's 1978 film version which had been lying around my place for a few months at least. I had been putting it off for so long because of my aforementioned weariness of Neil Simon, but after seeing the show, I thought to myself, "Hey, if a bunch of college students can be great with this, just imagine what Jane Fonda, Dame Maggie Smith and Michael Caine can do in it!" Then you can imagine my surprise when it turned out that this star-studded extravaganza was nothing more than a pointless, inexcusable and all-around unenjoyable waste of talent.
In case you're not aware, on the stage, California Suite is comprised of four one-act plays all taking place at different times of the year in rooms 203 and 204 of the same posh Californian hotel. The first, and probably biggest, misstep the filmmakers make is to try to make the film more cinematic by having them stay at the same hotel during the same time and then sporadically intercut between all of their dramas. Also, they made the grave error of moving outside of the designated suites in an attempt to "open up" the movie. These are enormous problems because each of the stories require us to become intimately involved with each of these couplings and the constant cutting across the stories and multiple locations make it hard to really get invested for more than a minute or two at a time.
The story that suffers the most from this just happens to be the best of the bunch: the one concerning the visitors from London, Oscar-nominated actress Diana Barrie (Oscar-winner Dame Maggie Smith) and her antique dealing (i.e. gay or bisexual, depending on your interpretation) husband Sidney (a miscast Michael Caine) in town for the Academy Awards ceremony. On stage, the one-act is a luminous, extremely witty and intricate view of a complex and almost incomprehensible relationship. What suits this story extremely well is an intimate surrounding that the tiny, 75-seat theatre the play was performed in achieved perfectly. On film, Ross shoots everything from medium close-up, if not further away, and it's damn near impossible to connect with anything Diana and Sidney are saying or doing. Now, I don't want to suggest that the young actors I saw on stage are better than Dame Maggie Smith and Michael Caine since they are fucking legends for a reason. No, I just wish that the two of them, Smith in particular, had pushed it a little further. During her drunk scenes, she should have acted slightly more intoxicated and less quirky. Not only would her funny lines work better, but it would make the sharp, intense dialogue with Caine all the more heartbreaking.
If the best storyline is treated so shoddily, you can only imagine how the other three come out. Jane Fonda and Alan Alda star in the weakest one as a divorced couple fighting for their daughter. The dialogue is too spot-on and unnaturally witty, so the two of them don't really do anything besides bounce lines off each other for awhile. It's not a complete waste of time, but there are certainly other things I'd rather be watching. The less said about the Walter Matthau story, the better. The tendency to go over-the-top is inherent in the scene and Matthau is so far over it, he's on Mars. In fact, I think Matthau gives one of the worst performances I've ever seen. He's so stereotypically Jewish I'm surprised he doesn't have a yamulke and those curly sideburns; it's extremely insulting and almost disgusting to watch. Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby star in the slapstick portion of the film and that, too, is way too subdued to be half as funny as it could be. But, then again, I shouldn't be so surprised that Ross and company bungled it up as much as they did since that seemed to happen with everything in this film. D+