California Dreamin’ is many things—a culture-clash comedy, a satire of petty-minded provincialism, a critique of American foreign involvement, and even a sliver of a love story—but in the hands of preternaturally gifted and, sadly, prematurely deceased filmmaker Cristian Nemescu, the film plays out with an impressive singularity of purpose. Set during NATO’s ill-fated 1999 campaign in Kosovo, the picture begins with a joint group of American Marines and Romanian soldiers shipping a trainload of top-secret communications equipment through the Romanian countryside. Passing through the village of Capalnita, the train is stopped by the corrupt stationmaster, Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who partly as a small-minded display of power and partly due to deep-seated anti-American sentiment (“Fuck U.S.A.,” he declares to the Marine captain), defies Bucharest and detains the shipment for a lack of proper documentation.
During the five days the Marines remain in the village, they’re courted by all sides: the opportunistic mayor stages a grand party for their benefit (a terrific comic set piece complete with Elvis impersonator and decorative paintings of such American icons as George Washington and Arnold Schwarzenegger), the high school girls throw themselves at the new crop of available young men, while other leading village interests try to finagle American dollars from the stuck soldiers. But if the presence of the Americans proves an occasion for a display of Romanian hospitality, that presence also threatens to exacerbate the underlying tensions of the village’s power structure. And having brought these tensions to a head, the Marines clear out to help bomb Yugoslavia (echoing, through flashback, the Allied bombing of Romania during WWII), leaving the locals to sort out the mess and pointing up, as writer Keith Uhlich noted, “the American tendency to stir up trouble and then head for the hills” when things get out of control.
Among his countrymen, Nemescu’s satirical look at the small-mindedness of provincial opportunism is far closer to the comic bluster of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest than the pitch-black gallows humor of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, though it probably has more in common with the pointed stupidities on display in The Fireman’s Ball than with either. From the characterization of the Romanian army captain (a spineless cipher of a man who pulls on his vodka bottle while his American counterpart sips water) to its view of corruption as intrinsic to the provincial mindset (our first glimpse of Doiaru shows him siphoning off supplies from a train passing through his station) to the racy entertainments that dominate the town’s stages (a sexy vampire musical), Nemescu’s satirical observations fruitfully echo Milos Forman’s comically jaundiced worldview. Both directors, too, view the logical endpoint of a community of venal, power-grubbing citizens as conflagration and apocalypse, though in California Dreamin’ the Americans are at least partly to blame.
As the farmhouse burns to the ground in Forman’s film, so our last glimpse of the town of Capalnita is of a small-scale civil war—mirroring the situation in nearby Yugoslavia—with firebombs torching police cars. But unlike in the earlier picture, in which no character is allowed to transcend their role as satirical target, Nemescu endows even his most loathsome figure, Doiaru, with a mitigating backstory to explain his particular prejudices. There’s a certain nobility, as well, in his ill-fated opposition to NATO’s demands, even if his motives are anything but pure. The American soldiers, for their part, are never imagined as simple-minded agents of Yankee imperialism, ranging instead from Armand Assante’s ballsy but surprisingly adaptable Marine captain to Sergeant David McLaren (Jamie Elman), his more diplomatically inclined subordinate, who longs for a return to the States and takes up with a 17-year-old Romanian girl as a substitute for his woman at home. Simultaneously sympathetic and critical of his characters’ myriad viewpoints (and as there are many characters in the film’s broad canvas, so there are many viewpoints), Nemescu offers up a vast array of humanity caught in a specifically articulated set of circumstances and finds them acting, for the most part, out of an understandable self-interest. In California Dreamin’ everyone has their reasons and, while there’s no question that this may be an awful thing, it’s also, thanks to the director’s commitment to a fair-minded exposition, what makes them comprehensively human.