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Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God... Be Back by Five (1998)
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God... Be Back by Five
holds to traditional indie film underpinnings the predominance of script over stars
and style. The richness of its story results in an Altoid of a film small and plain
but very potent, leaving an effect long after it's over.
Daniel (Jon Cryer) and Stan (newcomer Rick Stear) are lifelong friends living in a working-class New York neighborhood. They're thirtysomethings stuck in the past, their current careers and lives constantly paling alongside the idealized vision of high school days they constantly revisit. Daniel is stuck in a dead-end job as a jeweler's assistant and Stan has his own problems: alcohol, unemployment, and an inability to commit. When they learn that Richie, a long-lost third musketeer in their old group, has been seen wandering around Coney Island, confused and homeless, they set off to find him.
On a cold and almost deserted day late in the season, Daniel and Stan encounter a number of odd characters, each with their own bent take on the world. There's a not-so-freaky freak show, an old photographer who wistfully chronicles the park's glory days, a Skee-ball vendor (Frank Whaley) who uses prize tickets to illustrate economic principles and rant against welfare. In a park diner they encounter Maurice, who has lost his most recent love. As they search for Richie in the aged and decaying park, Daniel and Stan gradually learn that their focus on the past has warped their view of the world and crippled their aspirations for the future.
Director Richard Shenkman and cinematographer Adam Beckman create powerful contrasts. The flashback scenes glow with warm primary colors and bright sunshine, while the present day scenes are grim and bloodless; so much color is drained out of these shots that they almost appear black and white. There's no soundtrack bleating out past pop hits as a convenient emotional hook or a boon to soundtrack CD sales. The film uses both sound and music sparingly. When Maurice describes his lost love, the scratched and sappy 1976 love songs wheezily leaking from the diner's jukebox are a heart-rending counterpoint.
As in their previous joint effort, The Pompatus of Love, Jon Cryer co-wrote the screenplay with Shenkman and based it on his own experience. It's a collection of episodes set in variously shabby circumstances, but they all glow with the authenticity of the characters and the depth of the emotions they portray. The film takes on a Waiting For Godot tone, as Daniel and Stan's search for Richie becomes less important than the journey they take within themselves. What Daniel and Stan eventually learn about their choices and why they've made them isn't particularly pleasant, but it's rewarding to see them reach conclusions that they should have arrived at long ago.
The acting is a well-matched set of wry, low-key marvels. Cryer manages to take small things and infuse them with great content he turns a sidelong glance at his thinning hair in a washroom mirror into a touching lament. Rick Stear makes a memorable film debut as Stan a character that could have easily degenerated into a cliched stereotype. He constantly adds small touches that surprise. As Richie, Rafael Baez turns in a multi-layered performance, his madness constantly shifting levels under the surface. But the true stars of this film are the minor characters. Each has a memorable moment or two that goes far beyond the expected. Of special note is Peter Gerety as Maurice his fifteen minutes on screen are nothing short of magical.
Cryer and Shenkman's script ends the film on an incomplete note, but it's a realistic conclusion given the nature of its subjects and the richness of the journey. Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God... Be Back By Five is poignant without being mawkish, introspective but not brooding. It's a small jewel of a film that builds slowly and powerfully; its many small scenes have a cumulative effect that gleams with truth.