From their first childhood encounter, Daniel (Jon Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) have enjoyed an inseparable friendship. While attending school, Stan—whose left leg is shorter than his right, and who will acquire a lifelong limp after a surgical procedure goes awry—would institute a day of hooky by communicating to his pal “We’re on a mission from God” (a reference to The Blues Brothers, perhaps). As the two navigate their way through high school, they’re joined by a third companion: Richie (Rafael Báez), who’s boastful about his romantic conquests. The trio does everything together—they even form their own band.
Yet as the old Statler Brothers tune Class of ’57 reminds us: “Things get complicated when you get past eighteen.” Daniel and Stan learn to their dismay that adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: Daniel has a dead-end job and a girlfriend he won’t commit to…Stan’s got an even-shittier job and a gambling addiction/drinking problem to go along with his lady troubles. As for Richie: well, he vanished shortly after the death of his younger sister (Christina Hernandez) and hasn’t been heard from since. Then Stan gets second-hand information that someone’s spotted Richie—homeless and picking up garbage and bits of junk at Coney Island…so he and Daniel set out “on a mission from God” to locate their pal in a voyage that results in a poignant adventure of self-discovery.
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God… Be Back by Five (1998) is not only the title of this charming, quirky coming-of-age tale…it was actually scribbled down by actor Jon Cryer on a note to his girlfriend when he and a friend set out on a similar trek to track down a homeless friend offscreen. Cryer, a familiar face to TV audiences as one of the stars of the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men, co-wrote and co-produced Coney Island with director Richard Schenkman, whose films include The Pompatus of Love (1996—also starring and co-written by Cryer) and cult fave The Man from Earth (2007). Schenkman notes in introductory remarks for Coney Island’s Blu-ray release that the film remains his favorite of his works (the movie won many festival honors, including an Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival); Coney Island made its Blu-ray debut this week (Tuesday, May 8) in a special edition from MVD Entertainment Group as part of their “MVD Rewind Series.”
“A breath of fresh air,” wrote TDOY fave Leonard Maltin in a review for Playboy. “Moving and funny…a satisfying slice of life.” To be frank, I didn’t learn about this movie from Len’s Playboy write-up; I came across it in the last edition of his Movie Guide, and when I received notice from MVD’s Clint Weiler that the movie was headed for re-release I asked him for a screener, which he sent without hesitation. (Clint’s good people.) I found Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God… Be Back by Five a most beguiling movie, featuring characters that are unavoidably likable despite their flaws, and the authentic on-location shooting at the iconic amusement attraction provides a wonderful backdrop as two best friends ponder the poor choices in life they’ve made along the way.
As Daniel and Stan soldier on in their quest to find Richie, we learn their backstory via flashbacks that are wonderfully woven with their encounters with various Coney Island eccentrics in the dead of winter. Cryer, who became a favorite in the 1980s with movies good (Pretty in Pink) and bad (Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home), is first-rate as Daniel, the sensible member of the trio, and Stear equally good as his irresponsible buddy. There are also solid performances from Báez, Ione Skye (as Stear’s fed-up fiancée), and Frank Whaley in a scene-stealing turn as the manager of a Coney Island Skee-ball concession whose highlight is explaining to Stear’s Stan why cutting him some slack on a single prize ticket will start an economic cataclysm of epic proportions.
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God… Be Back by Five (cool title…but a chore to type out) also features a number of future small screen faces (besides Cryer, of course): The Sopranos’ “Uncle Junior,” Dominic Chianese, is a boardwalk photographer who has an encounter with our heroes, and Judy Reyes (from Scrubs and Devious Maids) plays a jaded waitress. Two players from the Law & Order franchise, Leslie Hendrix (the sardonic medical examiner) and Peter Gerety (also a regular on Homicide: Life on the Street), also have small roles (Hendrix is a riot as a “bearded lady”), as do Roz Ryan (from Amen) and Peggy Pope (a longtime TV veteran I always remember from Soap). Coney Island has many wonderfully reflective moments that skillfully blend both the sweet and bittersweet, but to me the biggest surprise was the maturity in star Cryer’s performance (he always comes across as a shallow wisenheimer in most of the things I’ve viewed him in…though I can’t vouch for Two and a Half Men because I’ve never watched an episode). It was clearly a labor of love for Cryer and director Schenkman, who both provide audio commentary for this special edition Blu-ray that also features a behind-the-scenes featurette, a photo gallery, and Schenkman’s short film The Producer. This one’s a treasure.