Four rooms

It would be difficult to make the case that Herbert Ross’ California Suite (1978) is a good movie—but it has much to recommend it, chiefly in the performances of such brilliant actors as Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Elaine May, and Walter Matthau.  They carry the better two of the film’s four intercut segments, all of which take place over the course of twenty-four hours at a pastel-toned Hollywood hotel that looks like a three-dimensional David Hockney painting.  In the broadest and weakest of the segments, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor play bickering brothers-in-law whose attempt to enjoy a California vacation with their respective wives becomes a slapstick comedy of errors; meanwhile, Jane Fonda, playing a cartoon version of a brittle East Coast career woman, begrudgingly relinquishes custody of her teenage daughter to her ex-husband (Alan Alda).  But things unfold more entertainingly down the hall, as stressed-out actress Smith tries to come to grips with the knowledge that her longtime husband (Caine) has been carrying on affairs with other men and Matthau tries (and fails) to hide the body of a passed-out call girl from his wife (May).  Written by Neil Simon, the whole film is a crazy quilt of different ethnic and cultural types, with each piece written and acted in a matching tonal key.  While the Alda-Fonda scenes, done in a kind of chilly WASP dialect, nearly bring the film to a halt, the arch, witty banter between Caine and Smith is expertly handled, and the farcical Jewish humor in the segment with Matthau and May (both regular Simon collaborators) is hilarious enough to salvage a comic scenario that is arguably as old as comedy itself.


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