First Look Pictures // 2004 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 11th, 2004
Love is a battlefield.
Writer/director Reverge Anselmo's fiercely autobiographical story of young love, Stateside, comes to DVD care of First Look Pictures. While I wouldn't want to criticize the events of a man's life, I've got no problem criticizing the movie he makes from those events -- and Stateside is a movie that leaves itself wide open for criticism.
Spoiled rich kid Mark Deloach (Jonathan Tucker, The Virgin Suicides, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)) finds his life turned upside down when he's sent off to the Marines following a tragic car accident. While home on leave, Mark meets Dori Lawrence (Rachael Leigh Cook, Josie and the Pussycats), a successful actress and less successful musician, who also happens to be schizophrenic. Despite the resistance of their friends and families, the two fall in love and resolve to let nothing stand in the way of their happiness.
Stateside plays like an explosion at the movie factory, assembling such a variety of well-known filmic characters and situations into one movie that, upon first glance, it almost seems wholly original. It isn't, but don't feel too badly about being fooled -- the story elements and characters Anselmo pieced together for Stateside haven't necessarily appeared together on film before: the Salingeresque spoiled prep-school brat; the damaged-but-loveable girl; the town slut (Agnes Bruckner, Blue Car, in a role that all but defines "thankless"); the Irish priest, complete with bad accent (Ed Begley, Jr., Cat People); boot camp; mental illness; rock and roll bands; institutionalization; rebellious love; Penny Marshall. Each moment of screen time, we're reminded of a half-dozen other movies that must have inspired this one, yet when all is said and done, it feels as though we haven't seen this combination of tired elements before. It's still the same old game of chess, but the pieces have all been rearranged.
What makes this approach to storytelling truly puzzling, then, is that Stateside claims to be "based on a true story," and it is -- writer-director Reverge Anselmo's story. Knowing this, I had to wonder if Anselmo really did live his life according to the clichés of movies he had seen, or if he had just seen so many movies that his memory became colored by them -- like the Jim Carrey character in The Cable Guy, who had pieced together memories of his life with old TV show plots. Knowing that the movie is based in fact, though, might help to reconcile certain elements, such as the year in which it occurs -- the movie is set in 1981, though not so you would know it; save for a theater that's playing The Evil Dead, there is little to no effort made to evoke a sense of time or place. The only reasonable explanation, then, is that it's the year in which all of this actually happened.
Not that knowing the personal history behind the story makes it any better. Now, instead of believing Anselmo sends his protagonist off to boot camp to "make a man out of him" just because he's seen An Officer and a Gentleman, I know that it's actually based on the fact that Anselmo himself went through it. That, however, doesn't make it any more effective. In fact, it would seem that the boot camp material is in the film only because it fits within Anselmo's real-life timeline; dramatically, it serves no purpose. Mark Deloach doesn't come out of boot camp a changed man, nor do his experiences there shape the events of the rest of the film. Except for explaining what would otherwise be a few confusing plot details, the Marine stuff could have been removed from the film altogether without changing the end result all that much -- never a good sign for what proves to be a major set piece of the movie. At least it gives Val Kilmer (The Doors, Heat) a chance to break the mold of cinema drill instructors, creating more of a real person than the usual cartoonish archetype. But do they all have to be this sadistic?
That the film is so intensely personal is both its blessing and its curse. It allows you to be a bit more forgiving of its meandering nature, or of sequences (like the one at boot camp) that don't necessarily pay off. At the same time, it gives license to a number of smaller touches -- Joe Mantegna's emphysema, for one, is never made into a plot point, but rather provides a small character touch that serves to round out Anselmo's universe. Of course, the second you begin to marvel at the subtlety or keen eye for detail on display, you remember that it has nothing to do with creativity on the writer's part -- it's there because "it happened," and again you're drawn out of the film. Anselmo clearly wants to tell a story, but doesn't seem to be sure which one. When all is said and done, we're left scratching our heads, asking, "Why did he choose this one?"
Rachael Leigh Cook continues her run as the poor man's Natalie Portman, showing little of Portman's charm and virtually none of her range; for direct proof, compare Cook's work in Stateside to Portman's luminously quirky turn playing a nearly identical role in Zach Braff's far superior Garden State. Cook has a tough time selling just about every element of the character -- her quirkiness feels tacked on, and the heavier moments are simply out of her range. Jonathan Tucker, as the movie's lead, lurks somewhere between refreshingly naturalistic and wide-eyed amateurish -- like Cook, he seems to be in over his head. Part of the fault may lie in Anselmo's overly mannered dialogue. This is the kind of dialogue that typically attracts not-ready-for-Mamet actors like Cook and Tucker, who gushingly refer to it as "original" (as they do on the disc's special features) when it's actually awkward and overwritten; it's reminiscent of Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson's Creek) in its unnatural patterns and self-satisfied cleverness.
The First Look DVD of Stateside is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is fine but not exemplary; the colors pop, but fleshtones aren't quite right, and the image isn't as bright as it ought to be. Though the film boasts a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, you'd barely know it -- most of the activity takes place in the front (specifically center) channels. The 2.0 audio track that's also included actually makes more use of the rear speakers, though that's more a result of the sound bleeding and not an intentional encoding; the 5.1 track is the intended mix, and it's a letdown.
The disc boasts a decent amount of extras, though many of them wind up being uninteresting or redundant. Three of the options provide interviews with either Anselmo or various members of the cast, and while some of what they have to say is of interest, there is too much overlap in the content of the interviews -- it all becomes repetitive. This is even more apparent after listening to the group commentary track (the best thing about the disc, making this the third time in a week's reviewing that a commentary track has proved better than the film being commented on) featuring Anselmo, Cook, Tucker, Bruckner, and Daniel Franzese (Bully), who has a small role as Tucker's best friend. The track is a lot of fun, and manages to avoid the problems encountered by many group commentary tracks, where the performers simply laugh and talk over one another and leave the audience cold. It does, however, repeat the same kind of information and praise (statements like "We love Reverge!" wear out their welcome quickly) found in the video interviews -- after the commentary, those feel like overkill.
Despite the best efforts of a strong supporting cast, Stateside, is a well-intentioned mess. The movie's overabundance of ideas can't keep from crashing into one another, creating something that, while not quite unwatchable, isn't quite memorable, either.
The Court finds Stateside guilty, recommending that it be shipped off to sea. And a reminder to Reverge Anselmo: as a writer, it's okay to make things up. Just ask Ann Coulter.
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by the Director and Cast
* Premiere Party Footage
* Cast Interviews
* Director Interview
* Featurette: "Boot Camp"
* Bonus Trailers
* Official Site
* Seven Hills Pictures