Imagine “An Officer and a Gentleman” refashioned as a sappy WB teen soap opera and you’ll have some notion of what “Stateside” is like. The third feature by writer-director Reverge Anselmo, a period piece set in the 1980s, deals with a troubled romance between a young man compelled to join the Marines in lieu of a jail sentence and a schizophrenic actress-singer confined to a mental ward. Can these two overcome their tragic burdens and find happiness together? As devised by Anselmo, the answer results in a melodrama of astonishing flatness and insipidity. “Stateside” is the sort of dim little picture one would like to see exported somewhere far, far away.
The troubled hero is Mark Deloach (Jonathan Tucker), a student at a Catholic prep school in Connecticut who gets involved in a prank gone wrong, resulting in a car crash that seriously injures sultry fellow student Sue Dubois (Agnes Bruckner) as well as the school’s principal, Father Concoff (Ed Begley, Jr.). Sue’s smugly upper-crust mother (Carrie Fisher) commits her daughter to a mental institution after finding out about the girl’s sexual indiscretions, and mounts a legal vendetta against Mark, who tries to visit Sue to apologize, in the process meeting her roommate Dori Lawrence (Rachael Leigh Cook)–an actress/rocker who lost it on the set of a “Mary Poppins”-like musical before being gang-raped by the guys in her own band. The boy’s wealthy father (Joe Mantegna), however, proves powerful even though his asthma makes him dependent on regular infusions of oxygen: he arranges a plea bargain in which his son goes to Marine boot camp rather than prison. There follows an extended boy-becoming-a-man episode, with preening Val Kilmer playing a distinctly oddball D.I. (no “Full Metal Jacket” this). But though suffering the humiliation of being the sergeant’s particular target, Mark makes the military grade, and when he periodically gets leave, he uses the time to deepen his relationship with Dori, apparently believing (to the eventual dismay of Sue, as well as Dori’s doctors and fellow patients) that schizophrenia can be cured by true love. He persists despite Dori’s unpredictable behavior until duty calls, sending him to Beirut just prior to the assault on the Marine barracks there. By the close he’s as damaged physically as Dori is mentally–and the denouement suggests that each can meet the needs of the other.
The problem with all this is that Anselmo simply tries to cram too much into a narrative that runs barely over ninety minutes. Even the two major elements–the Mark-Dori romance and the boot camp material–seem curiously attenuated. The former necessarily moves in fits and starts, and one never gets a real sense of what draws these characters to each other so powerfully; even worse, individually they never seem complete. Mark, whom Tucker plays with a sort of gruff directness, gets the lion’s share of attention, but exactly why he devotes himself to his military training so intensely isn’t ever clarified. Certainly the little Polonius-like directive given him by his father before his departure doesn’t explain it; perhaps we’re supposed to understand that the guilt he feels about Sue and Father Concoff is the reason (he eventually makes up with her, and tries to apologize to the wheelchair-bound priest, who rebuffs him), but it’s never dramatized. Still, he’s provided with a development arc, which isn’t true of Dori at all: from the beginning she’s one of those colorfully outrageous types with uncontrollable mood swings (no back story is offered at all), and Cook plays her with a generalized sort of energy that’s eye-catching but largely on the surface. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the pair leaves almost every other character little more than an afterthought. Neither Mantegna nor Fisher nor Begley is provided with anything but the sketchiest material, and Mark’s classmates–including Daniel Franzese of “Mean Girls”–become mere walk-ons. Worst off of all is young Zena Grey, who plays Mark’s younger sister Gina–a character who apparently always wears a fur coat left her by her dead mother. (That hospital might have a new resident before long.) Even Bruckner and Kilmer get shortchanged, their potentially intriguing characters being reduced to one-note figures.
“Stateside” doesn’t impress from a technical standpoint, either. Adam Holender’s widescreen cinematography gives the picture a dank, dingy look, and the score by John McNeely–who’s done some excellent work recording the music of other composers on the Varese Sarabande label–is instantly forgettable. Nor does the physical production match Anselmo’s ambition; the Beirut episode, for instance, is covered with an stock insert of a few Marines on shipboard and what amounts to the sort of title card that would have been at home in a silent film. The lack of budget (and scale) definitely shows here.
At the close of “Stateside,” Penny Marshall turns up as a nurse, looking old, tired and decidedly dejected. And by that time you may feel exactly the same way. This picture is a long journey that ultimately goes nowhere.