In 1968 Neil Simon had a Broadway hit with Plaza Suite, a comedy-drama featuring three couples whose otherwise separate lives were linked by Suite 719 at New York’s Plaza Hotel. On stage all three couples were played by Walther Matthau and Maureen Stapleton. When the film version of Plaza Suite arrived in 1971, Matthau still played all three male leads but with different leading ladies, Stapleton only kept her old role for the first segment.
In 1976 Simon transferred the formula to the West Coast for another play, filmed in 1978. Again the focus fell on four couples, this time based in a single suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Maybe the concept worked better on stage because this film version is so ‘opened out’ it is hard to believe events are taking place in the same hotel, never mind the same suite. We have four sets of main characters: Maggie Smith and Michael Caine are husband and wife, she is an actress in town for the Oscars, he is her antique dealer husband; Alan Alda and Jane Fonda play a divorced couple still warring over custody of their teenage daughter; Walther Matthau and Elaine May are a middle-aged couple whose marriage is put in jeopardy by an uncharacteristic indiscretion on the husband’s part; while Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby are bickering brothers-in-law holidaying with their wives.
The four stories are rather patchy in their treatment, the way they are played, and how they are stitched together. The most touching is probably the Smith/Caine section in both its revelations (he is bisexual, she is vulnerably neurotic) and its handling of their relationship (despite his dual sexuality Caine obviously does care deeply for Smith, and when it matters offers her unreserved love and loyalty). Smith gets to carry off some of the classy comedy which suits her best – and won a genuine Oscar for her efforts. Coming down to the lobby to leave for the ceremony she detours to the bar: “I need another drink. That last one wore off in the lift.” Caine, meanwhile, gets to play an effete middle-class Britisher rather than his usual salt-of-the-earth Cockney, and makes a decent job of it.
Alda and Fonda are less sympathetic. Alda’s character has made a life as a successful screenwriter while Fonda is a hard-driven New York workaholic. He seems incredibly smug, she seems unliveable with. They swap wise-cracks and snipe at each other, but there is no underlying affection to remove the sting for the audience; these two just enjoy scoring points off each other.
This was the time when – with his iconoclastic role in TV’s M*A*S*H – Alda was the world’s favourite right-on humanitarian liberal, frequently called 'the thinking woman’s crumpet'. The trouble is he knows it, and coasts on that reputation. I also suspect that a successful Hollywood screenwriter has to be every bit a hard-driven workaholic as anyone in Manhattan. A few hours of relaxed writing and spending the rest of the day at the beach won’t cut it.
With Matthau and May we have a French farce, as he awakens with a prostitute passed out drunk in his bed and his wife arriving and making her way to the room. Matthau resorts to every trick in the book to keep his wife from discovering the truth, and naturally fails, having to admit his infidelity and agree to anything to save his marriage. The situation, however, does not come over as funny, just desperate and in rather bad taste. The viewer keeps waiting for the moment when we find nothing really happened. This would release the tension and expand the humour, but the moment never comes (unlike Matthau, fnarr-fnarr!).
Pryor and Cosby, meanwhile, stray beyond farce into slapstick. Admittedly, having black actors play successful professionals (doctors) is progress of a kind. These professionals, however, are clumsy and childish, unable to visit a restaurant without crashing their car, or cross the hotel room without tripping over half-a-dozen objects. Watching the film today, our knowledge of Mr Cosby’s alleged sexual history tends to make the viewer reluctant to warm to his character, while Pryor is still essentially a street-wise loudmouth, doctor or not.
California Suite is a lumpy, uneven film, with no coherent structure, just four unrelated stories, with nothing to hold them together. They could have been presented consecutively, rather than intercut, and you would have been left with a series of half-hour sitcoms. Any one of the stories could have been removed, without changing the film. Entertainment value comes from watching the cast do their thing, but unless you find the sight of people being unpleasant to each other funny, this isn’t much of a comedy at all.