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Love crazy

A review of Stateside

Boy in a flack jacket meets girl in a straight jacket in Stateside.
  • Boy in a flack jacket meets girl in a straight jacket in Stateside.

*Stateside (R)
Samuel Goldwyn Films

American films require love stories the way their audiences demand overpriced popcorn. Like baseball and hotdogs, divorces with lawyers, celebrities' and scandal, the "love interest" is a requisite part of the Hollywood package no matter how irrelevant it may be to the story at hand.

So it's odd then, that Hollywood and its indie subsidiaries rarely make films that deal with love in a substantive way. That's why -- despite its hurried, ill-explained ending -- Reverge Anselmo's Stateside is worth the investment of your time and emotion.

It's the late 1970s and Catholic prep schooler Mark Deloach (Jonathan Tucker) is forced to grow up quick. The scion of a wealthy businessman (Joe Mantegna), Mark leads a life of listlessness and emotional poverty. His mother died of cancer several years ago and his father has since resorted to a combination of absenteeism and severe asthma while his sister prances about their marble mansion in her mom's stole fending for attention.

While driving drunk with friends -- the preferred pastime for Connecticut teens -- Mark crashes, paralyzing his headmaster, who's also a priest (Ed Begley Jr.), and hospitalizing his friend's girlfriend, Sue (Agnes Bruckner). Thanks to his dad's connections, Mark is spared a prison sentence if he can get through Marine basic training.

Oddly enough, military life seems to suit this reluctant warrior as it offers a structured alternative to the pampered existence that was once his life. Enter Val Kilmer as the sadistic drill sergeant and you have a recipe for predictable boot camp fun.

On furlough, Mark reconnects with Sue, the classmate he nearly killed, who has been committed to a halfway house because her sanctimonious mother (Carrie Fisher) has discovered her sexual proclivities. There, she rooms with Dori (Rachael Leigh Cook) an actor/rock singer whose career has tanked because of her schizophrenia.

Mark and Dori's connection is instant and strangely, humorously absurd. He's set to lug radio equipment in swampy South Carolina and she's, well, crazy. But the emotional poverty of their lives, coupled with their respective entrapments (to the Marines and mental health providers), only charges the intensity of their affair.

What makes Stateside work is the chemistry between Tucker and Cook. The film uses voiceovers from Mark's letters to Dori for both exposition and humor. Voiceover is often used as a crutch, or merely for cheap laughs, but here it provides an odd example of how love can balance people out through prolonged hardships.

Stateside could have delved deeper into Dori's mental illness and explored what love means to someone who genuinely can't handle it. In the absence of that, certain tragic plot twists feel forced, even if we know the relationship was never going to be easy.

Tucker does a wonderful job of shouldering the realization that the love of his life might not be in the best interest of the love of his life. When he explains to Dori's therapist how he has nothing, that her letters make his "military monk's" life bearable, it's easily as heartfelt as anything emanating from the mouth of a Capulet.

Despite dodging several clichs, like reveling in '80s nostalgia, Stateside ends hurriedly with loose ends still fluttering in the wind.

The careers of Stateside's immensely talented young stars will be a tough sell. Tucker looks too much like Tobey Maguire, but is not quite as good looking, while Cook looks like a better fed Natalie Portman. I suppose these two really were made for each other. Sort of.

-- John Dicker

Opens in theaters Friday, May 21

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