"California Suite" is a lackluster reunion for Neil Simon and Herbert Ross, who Collaborated effectively on "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Sunshine Boys." The feebleness of this negligibly revised and expanded text of Simon's original theater pieces, a quartet of serio-comic playlets about guests registered at the Beverly Hills Hotel, may be exaggerated by the Simon-Ross track record and their waste of a stellar cast.
The episodes are linked nominally by the setting of the hotel and fundamentally by an irritating shallowness. For example, Jane Fonda and Alan Alda play a divorced couple in trumped-up conflict over their teenage daughter, who would prefer to live in Los Angeles with her father. The mother, an Eastern intellectual snob identified as a Newsweek editor (with no discernible facetiousness), says spiteful things about the West Coast. Alda, a transplanted writer who prefers it there, remains calm and contradicts her prejudices.
The upshot is predictably anticlimactic. The mother's resentment is revealed to spring from her anxiety about losing dominance over her daughter. Resolutely, she swallows her pride and permits the child to remain with the heathens in California.
Maggie Smith, a British actress nominated for an Academy Award, and Michael Caine, her droll spouse, an antique dealer, arrive in town for the Oscar ceremony. Her anxiety about the competition causes her to get drunk and belligerent, especially when she sees her husband talking to a young man.She reviles him for his homosexual predilections, but he reminds her that they have a workable marital arrangement. The flare-up ends with the wife presumably resigned to their devoted, if sometimes melancholy, state, although Smith trails an unhappy aura that the complacent material doesn't seem to intend.
Walter Matthau, a businessman from Philadelphia, arrives in town a day ahead of his wife, Elaine May, to attend the bar mitzvah of their nephew. (In one of the script's rare moments of authentic humor Matthau explains, "We don't like to fly together because of the kids.") His libertine brother, Herb Edelman, leaves a present in his room: a blond hooker. The next morning Matthau scrambles like crazy to conceal the hooker, who has passed out in the bedroom.
Finally, two doctors from Chicago, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, arrive with their wives in an infirm rental car. Their bickering continues at the hotel when the Pryors get stuck in a cramped room where the plumbing is on the fritz. This hapless foursome ends up in a car wreck, an injury-prone tennis game and a donnybrook in the Cosbys' suite. They are last seen heading back home in casts and bandages.
When Matthau is busy trying to steer May away from the incriminating bedchamber, he makes up the following excuse, "I just threw up; don't go in there." It might have spared everyone a lot of grief if Simon had said the same thing after reading his play.
Each episode seems to be conceived and resolved in the most complacent ways imaginable. The actors are betrayed no matter what approach they take. Fonda and Smith, determined to bring emotional conviction to roles that simply can't accommodate it, seem to overpower the material. On the other hand, Alda and Caine look underemployed in roles that demand little except masculine equanimity.
Although Ross keeps trying to break away from the hotel rooms, Simon hasn't opened up the dialogue. Alda and Fonda may carry on their conversation at a restaurant, on the beach, in a beachhouse and in a car, but it's still obvious that this exchange belongs in one room on a theater stage.
The most stylish elements in the show begin and end with the credits: an attractive jazz theme by Claude Bolling and decorative artwork by David Hockney, whose paintings convey a more amusing and distinctive perception of the Hollywood setting than Simon or Ross can imagine.
Simon isn't too attentive to little details. Jane Fonda looks so West Coast healthy that you can't understand why she insists on sounding like a crankish Easterner. Woody Allen's Alvy Singer embodied the authentic crankiness. Fonda's tan and figure betray her true loyalties.