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By Christopher Zinsli | June 7, 2004

Based on a true story, though it’s not clear whose, “Stateside” cuts a broad swath of misplaced early-1980s wistfulness. It’s an indistinctive look back at a time without distinction, when the 70s had breathed its last and the 80s hadn’t yet taken hold. With a better cast than it deserves and a script from which it deserved better, the film is pleasant where it should be rowdy, quaint where it should be refreshing, and altogether far less daring than it thinks it is.

After a hastily assembled framing device in which a young man narrates from a hospital bed, and some aimless scene-hopping patched together with title cards and explanatory overdubs, we finally begin to understand that the film has two central characters. The first, Dori Lawrence (Rachel Leigh Cook), is an actress and rocker who is playfully gang-raped by her bandmates before being kicked out of the group and hospitalized for schizophrenia. The second, Mark Deloach (Jonathan Tucker), is a well-off teenager from Connecticut whose gruff father (played by Joe Mantegna) suffers from some unspecified respiratory ailment. It’s pretty rough going early on, before the stories of Mark and Dori become inevitably intertwined.

One night, Mark and his friend Danny decide on an alcohol-induced whim to interrupt Danny’s brother Gregory’s intimate night of “parking” with Sue Dubois (Agnes Bruckner), a not-so-secretly promiscuous girl at their Catholic high school. Mark and Danny pull the bra-and-panty-clad Sue from the backseat and drive off. Gregory gives chase, and the four end up in a collision with their school’s head priest, Father Concoff (Ed Begley Jr.). Sue requires extensive dental work, Father Concoff loses his legs, and Mark walks away with some scratches and a mountain of trouble.

“You must be so proud,” says Sue’s mother, who is a bitch (played by Carrie Fisher), to Mr. Deloach upon arriving at the police station. She learns of her daughter’s shameful activities and sends Sue off to be treated for nymphomania, then sues Mark for his role in sending her daughter to the hospital. The judge offers Mark a deal: go to jail or enlist. He chooses the Marine Corps.

Before meeting his military transport, Mark and his buddies decide to pay Sue a conciliatory visit at the hospital. Mark and Dori meet cute when a wayward spurt from a water fountain catches Dori in the face. Being a mental patient, she asks Mark to squirt her again, which he does. (A figurative analysis of this scene is probably unnecessary.) Dori runs giggling back to her room, which, it just so happens, she shares with Sue.

A fleeting moment is all Mark and Dori get before an understandably pissed off Sue chases the boys out of the hospital and a bus rushes Mark off to basic training. Stepping off the bus, Mark encounters army taskmaster SDI Skeer (Val Kilmer), who tells him and his fellow recruits, “You are here because you could not be trained to become men by the mothers of America.” An especially potent message for Mark, whose mother had died years earlier.

Unfortunately for Mark, Skeer has been informed of Mark’s rich-boy roots and is ordered to make a soldier out of him. Under the cruel tutelage of Val Kilmer, Mark undergoes the familiar time-honored set of boot camp tribulations. He is shouted at, derided, and given set after set of “mountain climbs,” a more tiring push-up surrogate. He receives an extra dose of attention from Skeer, who makes sure Mark is not denied the full experience.

And yet there’s something about Val Kilmer with a helmet strap under his chin that’s very, very funny. It’s strange to admit that the comic standout in a romantic comedy like this is a drill sergeant. Still, there he is, milking honest, intentional laughs from cruel actions against Mark, like ordering him to remove his mask in a gas-filled chamber for a leisurely discussion of Mark’s maid.

In between stints of training and war games, Mark makes his way back to visit Dori. They have picnics, go for walks. Love, naturally, sprouts. Like too many screen romances, however, it’s hard to tell why Mark and Dori ever fell for each other in the first place. They’re not so similar as to be perfect for each other, yet not different enough to prove that opposites attract. But, the intimate close-ups and sweet music when they meet and lock eyes appear to be good enough for them, so who am I to quibble?

Mark seems to take on Dori’s non-sequitur stream-of-consciousness wordplay solely as a way of relating to her on her level. He nicknames her “Globa,” which impresses her greatly. Aside from his sporty buzzcut and goofy DJ Qualls smile, though, what Dori sees in him remains a mystery. Yet she waits for him faithfully each time he runs off with his battalion. Mark is made a radio carrier, a job he performs through several “Forrest Gump”-like in-the-army montages until he takes a drunken spill at a strip club. “I broke my leg,” Mark half-informs Dori on his next visit back. “I’m emotionally greedy and the prognosis is not good,” she replies.

Jonathan Tucker, probably best known as Tilda Swinton’s gay son in “The Deep End,” has an eternally adolescent face and narrow build, making his character’s physical maturation over what is intended to be years (not to mention the supposed hardening caused by his military training) uneven at best. Cook’s youthful appearance, likewise, makes it hard to believe she’s a famous rock band frontwoman as well as a B-movie actress who gained near-cult status by starring in the Cold War spy spoof “Figure 8” before being hospitalized for schizophrenia.

Cook, while not exactly turning in an Angelina Jolie-caliber performance, hits all the proper notes in a role that, for the most part, demands little more than symptomatic acting. She’s much more interesting in her romantic moments than when playing out the anguished requirements of a girl interrupted. “She thinks you fix her,” Dori’s boarding house matron tells Mark, but it turns out that Dori’s condition actually gets worse each time Mark leaves to go back on duty.

Sue and other patients stage an intervention, asking Mark to leave Dori alone so she can heal. Dori runs to catch Mark before he leaves to be deployed overseas, but she’s too late. She stands alone, looking down the street, a “This Space Reserved” sign symbolically balancing her in the frame.

Mark and his fellow troops are sent to Beirut, where, a title card tells us, they suffer heavy casualties. Two years later, Mark lies in the hospital room that opened up the film, not a single one of his friends by his bedside. Also conspicuously absent from the film’s last half hour are Mantegna, Begley, and Kilmer (not to mention Fisher, who disappeared about twenty minutes in), a dead giveaway that Anselmo didn’t quite know how to weave his supporting cast in and out of his main storyline effectively. As such, they really only serve to distract from Mark and Dori’s story, instead of enriching it by adding new dimensions. Robert McKee is shaking his head sadly.

Despite his few-frills performance behind the camera, Anselmo obviously tried to be ambitious with his story. A romantic comedy crossed with a coming-of-age military historical subplot could have worked well, but he got it all backwards. The Marine Corps scenes contain the funniest material, and the romantic comedy portion becomes mired in melodrama. The script’s lessons go unlearned by the characters, and an ending that could have been cathartic lacks any sort of emotional punch. Though there’s nothing especially terrible about “Stateside,” there’s nothing terribly special about it either.

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