California Suite – directed by Herbert Ross. Low Comedy. Four sets of married couples find themselves in a series of unmarried stories in a Hollywood hotel. 103 minutes Color 1978.
Herbert Ross, despite the fact that he is a choreographer, has no gift for the physical comedy which poor Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby are called upon to enact. Two funny men and Ross finds nothing funny in them. Their episodes are played with pig-bladder depth. Neither actor is qualified to play physical comedy of this banana splat type. It requires tremendous, almost balletic training.
Jane Fonda at 41 is the perfect age to play the fast-talking career woman whose tongue gets the better of her marriage and motherhood. Her character is too quick on the draw to realize marriage is a draw. And Simon is too stupid to realize, even though he knows his gift for the shallows is fatal to his exploration of the possibilities of comedy at all, that the way out of that predicament is not more of the same. To think that her ex-husband Alan Alda can think of Jane Fonda as once attractive, with that mouth on her, places a new priority on our suspension of disbelief either in the sanity of Alda or the attraction of Jane Fonda, who, after all, next to Eve Arden, is one of the least romantically attractive screen personalities ever to breathe. Fonda is superb in the part.
So is Maggie Smith in hers; she won a supporting Oscar for this. She plays a British actress come over to collect a supporting Oscar, accompanied by her bi-sexual husband, to whom she is tragically sexually attracted, or so we are supposed to believe. This person is played in the far rear court by Michael Caine, who does not have a homosexual cell in his body. That’s why he plays it in the far rear court. He finds the casting as funny as I do.
The playwright further misconducts the proceedings by writing an improbable sequence involving Walter Matthau as a man who wakes up in his hotel bed to find himself next to a soporific tart. This unfunny situation is, of course, compounded by the premature entrance of his wife, played by Elaine May. They are all at a loss for what to do with lines that have no foundation in human response or human humor.
The material would work for a comedian of gross exaggeration, such as Sid Caesar, for whom Simon once wrote, where it might look good, but only, at best, on paper. Matthau plays it valiantly with his last nickel.
Neil Simon does not seem to get it that his talent completely embodies the values he himself thinks he is satirizing.
Neil Simon is a playwright whose comedies I am ashamed of.