Despite a talented all-star cast, "California Suite," which was based on a hit Neil Simon play, is a wildly uneven film. The episodic story traces several unrelated couples from across the U.S. that check into a Beverly Hills hotel. Like a comedic "Grand Hotel," the film cuts between the stories, although the editing makes no comments, ironic or otherwise, between the episodes. Actually, the often foolish, self-centered characters make "California Suite" more a "Ship of Fools" in the sunshine than a "Grand Hotel" under the palms. The original play was a follow-up to the more successful "Plaza Suite" and demonstrated Simon's shakier take on the West Coast than on the East. For the most part, the hotel guests speak and behave like the transplanted or visiting New Yorkers that they are.
Jane Fonda portrays the ultimate New York snob, and her bitchy banter with ex-husband Alan Alda only underscores her arrogance and intolerance of anything that exists west of the Hudson. Alda is a New Yorker's stereotype of a Californian with pastel sweaters and perpetual tan. While a few amusing lines pass between the terminally mismatched couple, Fonda and Alda's episode is more grating than funny. However, the New York couple display Noel-Coward wit in comparison to the wasted talents and misfires in the scenes that involve Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby as vacationing doctors. The premise of two couples that arrive to find a reservation for only one has promise. However, director Herbert Ross should have studied Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd before he devised the broad, unfunny physical stunts that will leave viewers grateful that both Pryor and Cosby survived the mess and moved on to better material.
However, the film does have some fine moments between comedic experts Walter Matthau and Elaine May. When Matthau arrives in LA a day early, his brother surprises him with a prostitute, who passes out from too much tequila and cannot be awakened in the morning. Of course, Matthau's wife, the always-delicious Elaine May, arrives, and the comedy moves into high gear. The best episode in the film, however, involves an English actress, Maggie Smith, and her bisexual husband, Michael Caine. The couple arrives to attend the Academy Awards, because Smith is a Best Actress nominee. While Smith has some of the best-written lines in the film, her role also has a depth and poignancy that goes far beyond the cardboard characters in the other episodes. Although Caine is equally fine, Smith's role is showier, and she won a deserved Academy Award for the part. The film's special irony is that the part of an Oscar-losing-actress won an Oscar for the actress who played her.
"California Suite" is one of those films in which a few superior scenes make it worthy entertainment, and the Smith-Caine episode pulls the film several notches higher than it otherwise deserves. Add the sparkling Matthau-May scenes, and there is at least one-half of a good movie. Although the Fonda-Alda episode is bearable and occasionally amusing, the Pryor-Cosby scenes are often labored and unfunny. However, with a strong finger on the fast-forward button, there is a good hour of comedy and fine performances to be had in this inconsistent film.