Drama, Alfred Hitchcock once drolly observed, is life with the dull parts cut out of it. In Stateside, writer-director Reverge Anselmo puts the dull parts back in. Mind you, he slices and dices them first, and then he flings them in your face like confetti, making it impossible to find any kind of narrative thrust or figure out what the hell's going on. The film is chock full of incidental incidents that overwhelm, and usually upstage, the leads.

At the outset, right after the opening credits, Anselmo announces that what follows in its quirky garden-snake fashion is "based on a true story." He just doesn't tell you it's his true story--an off-center Endless Love story a la the Brooke Shields-Martin Hewitt flick. Jonathan Tucker and Rachel Leigh Cook play--quite credibly--the star-crossed couple in the center ring here. He's a rich kid-turned-Marine, bound for Beirut battles; she's a loopy actress bound for the asylum. Can this relationship be saved? Should it have started?

On second thought, given his pinball-machine plotting and his broken selectivity button, it could only have been Anselmo's story. (The femme in the affair is Sarah Holcomb, one of the many new faces introduced in National Lampoon's Animal House; she went on to do Caddyshack and Happy Birthday, Gemini before her various addictions unhinged her.) The course of their true love is a pretty rocky ride, leadened with random irrelevancies and side trips to nowhere. There seems to be no director in the driver's seat.

An example of how unfocused the film is: Tucker gets tanked at a strip joint, falls off the stage drunkenly making an incomplete pass and breaks his leg. Then he spends the next quarter of the film hobbling clumsily through difficult emotional hoops with his leg in a cast. It becomes as oppressively omnipresent as Jack Nicholson's slit nose in Chinatown.

But one suspects that's how it happened in real life. The screenplay, like real life or some ridiculous Rube Goldberg contraption, alternately limps and lunges along without any sense of urgency or direction, and this unpredictability is part of the picture's charm.

When the film finally--after many seemingly casual detours--arrives at the story it wants to tell, you're in the homestretch and oddly moved by where it has taken you. You never saw it coming. In most film romances, young love is all; here, it seems not nearly enough. Good intention in one partner is sadly no match for advancing schizophrenia in the other.

Tucker as the callow young soldier and Cook as a sweetheart given to glazing over manage to make well-matched misfits of themselves. Agnes Bruckner gives a strong performance as a mutual friend who links the two up romantically. They are given very starry support from name-brand stars in cameo doses. Particularly effective: Val Kilmer as a (pneumatic) drill instructor, Joe Mantegna and Carrie Fisher as disapproving parents, Diana Venora as a hard-nosed halfway house official, Ed Begley, Jr. as a crippled priest and--most jarring and enjoyable of all--Penny Marshall as a fierce old crone of a nurse.

Stateside has some lopsided storytelling techniques, but emotionally it will get you home.

-Harry Haun