As a recent Robert Altman convert I have been trying to see as many of his films as I can. He had an almost incredible run of artistic (if not always commercial) success in the 70s. This 1974 film suffers in comparison a little but that is only because other films like McCabe and Mrs Miller, MASH, Images, Nashville, The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us are all such great masterpieces. I will try to write down about these films soon too when I get time and a chance to re-watch them which I think is necessary because his style is so rich and complex that even the most attentive and active viewer can't grasp and follow everything in just one viewing alone.
First, because of his oft-mentioned soundtrack design which incorporates multiple narrative voices at the same time. Altman doesn't distinguish or privilege one from the other, it is not as if there is something in the background running only for an effect and atmosphere. The viewer has to actively choose and decide what to listen to. Similarly his ever mobile camera preempts traditional audience expectations because we are never sure about who the real protagonist is in any particular scene. One character might be speaking and before he or she even completes the camera moves away from him or her and some other background track comes into focus. He is truly a great experimental film maker but his experimentation never comes across as gimmicky and are never meant to alienate the audience, on the other hand they inspire the audiences to do a lot of hard work of their own.
Coming to California Split the film follows two Gambling addicts Will, a magazine editor played by George Segal, and Charlie, played by Elliott Gould doing the same inspired mumbling-to-self routine which he perfected to sublime heights in The Long Goodbye, as they tour the poker, gambling, racing and betting centers looking for money to win and lose. Charlie is just a layabout who lives with a couple of prostitutes, one of them played by Gwen Welles who was painfully vulnerable in Nashville as a talentless singer who is forced to do a striptease to get a singing break and plays a similar role here. The other actress Ann Prentiss is quite good too though they both have only a few scenes. Will and Charlie strike up a friendship at the beginning because they feel that their companionship brings luck to each other. The film just follows a few parallel narratives in the lives of these four characters the main of which follows Will as he struggles with his financial obligations. He finally decides to make a final and major killing in the small gambling town of Reno and ropes in Charlie to go with him but his success there leaves him with a feeling of crushing emptiness and on that note the film ends.
It is not that hard to notice that Altman wants us to see Gambling as a metaphor for life itself and specially life as defined by all the decisions we make and in that specially the life lived in America. He was himself a compulsive and recovering gambler and though his criticism is never harsh or categorical but it is still very powerful in the end. He sees it as a means of escape from "real life", the life defined by purposeful action and personal responsibility, without which there can be no real meaning to life and no genuine or lasting happiness. I personally know very little about card games (and nothing about Poker) and so I got a bit bored at places but he thankfully never overdoes it in the film, though still giving a fantastically detailed, even documentary-like, tour of this particular subculture in America. In short not as great as Altman's best but quite close... An article on the film here