California Suite Review

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Four episodes chronicle the discussions and misadventures of five couples staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel


Few playwrights have been translated to the screen so frequently or so consistently successfully as Neil Simon. Seven years after shaping a trio of New York vignettes into Plaza Suite, he sought to repeat the formula with this all-star West Coast collection. The attempt earned him an Oscar nomination, but this is a messy misfire, which lurches uneasily between moments of earnest drama and crass slapstick. It's at its best when it sticks to the comedy of manners that Simon does best. But, even then, the laughter is often strained.

The opening meeting between the Manhattanite Jane Fonda and Californian Alan Alda to decide the future of their daughter is better played than it's written. Despite the recriminations, it's apparent that nine years of divorce have done little to heal the wounds or diminish the couple's feelings. But Simon allows the encounter to descend into a tale of two seaboards, with the result that the pair's personalities are soon submerged beneath bon mots more suited to Masterpiece Theatre than an emotional showdown.  

The byplay between Maggie Smith and Michael Caine, as she prepares for the evening's Oscar ceremony, is more suitably stylised and quips trip off the duo's tongues with acid precision. Smith, ironically, snagged a Best Supporting statuette for her sly insight into the insecurities of an ageing Oscar loser. But the ever-underestimated Caine is infinitely more courageous, as he lays his image on the line to reveal the heartache of the repressed Hollywood gay.  

 As the only returnee from Plaza Suite, Walter Matthau sleepwalks through being caught with a comatose hooker in his bed by trusting wife, Elaine May. But Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor have to endure the nightmare of playing doctors whose rivalry erupts into a series of catastrophes, which are supposed to be madcap and hilarious, but are actually cacophonic and racially dubious.

This ensemble farce fails on a number of levels although there are a couple fo decent turns from Michael Caine and Maggie Smith.