California Dreamin' features a Hollywood star, although not one who many producers would want to hang their coat on. Armand Assante's performance as the US military captain Doug Jones, whose company becomes stranded in a Roumanian village, hostage to the local honcho, is a peculiar one. He mumbles much of his dialogue, and whilst it seemed a little strange to see the US soldiers subtitled along with the Roumanian peasants, it did help to make sense of some of his more unlikely lines. Whether he was mouthing a strange translation from Roumanian into American-military speak, or just doing free-jazz improvisation, was impossible to tell. There was more than a hint of the Strangelove George C Scott to Assante's performance, all wild-eyed pent-up aggression with no outlet, but his oddness merely reflected an occasionally baffling movie.
The premise is straightforward and prepossessing. At the tail end of the Kosovan war a US communications team is effectively hijacked by Doiaru, the corrupt stationmaster, who has been waiting fifty years for the Americans to arrive. In a key speech, he says that he was expecting them to appear and get rid of the Nazis, then the Russians, then Ceausescu, and now when they do show up it's in order to go and bomb Serbs. The film makes play on the nature of Roumanian bureaucracy: nothing Jones barks into the telephone effects any change, and the company are stranded for four days. During which Doiaru's daughter, Monica, (the convincing Maria Dinulescu) has a fling with a fetching young US soldier; the company's discipline goes to pieces; and their presence finally provokes an insurrection against Doiaru which results in quasi-tragedy.
Nemescu splits the action up into four chapters, reflecting the four days the soldiers are stranded there. As a director his approach appeared to be to take the kitchen sink, throw it in, then see what else was lying around. Besides an inevitable Dracula-fest, which Assante sits through with a petulant/ comatose look on his face, there are various sub-plots involving Monica and the men who fancy her; an unexploded second world war bomb; the Roumanian government's attempts to displace Doiaru (played with an oxen belligerence by Razvan Vasilescu); a factory strike; and the remaining village politicking. The action is almost all rural, then all of a sudden Monica and her American soldier find themselves at a party in an unnamed town with a bomb going off beneath the bed. At one point the soldiers are taken to a replica of the Eiffel Tower, for no obvious reason save it makes for a pleasant frame. At another a Roumanian Elvis appears and sings Love Me Tender. It is a movie about the nature of being trapped and waiting, and at 155 minutes running time, it succeeds in conveying both the frustrations and delights of this experience.
In short, referring to a film which always prefers to go the long way round, it's a bit of a mess, containing about five movies in one. Its erratic structure is matched by its erratic tone - like a shapeless Kustirica movie, which is clearly going to be one of the baggier filmic structures you're likely to come across. And yet, California Dreamin' for all its longeurs, reminded me why I like movies and what I've been missing these past few weeks. It takes the viewer right into its peculiar world. The set-up of the clashing cultures was awkward (with some of the least soldierly US soldiers you're ever likely to see) but always fascinating, and the idea of having two people who cannot talk to one another but fancy the pants off each other was one of the more effective ideas in the pot-pourri. Nothing really hangs together, but all the same it's there, it's happening on the screen in front of you, and if you didn't see it you would have had no idea what it was you'd missed out on, for better or for worse.
That peculiar conflation of geography, economy, and a personal vision laid before your eyes in a dark room of a 'London' 'afternoon', (insert as appropriate), also known as cinema.