“Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five” (1998)

by A.J. Hakari

 

Growing up in the ’90s, you couldn’t find a theater that wasn’t showing some movie that rambled on about the good ol’ days. Boys had The Sandlot, girls had My Girl, and baby boomers had all those godforsaken adaptations of TV shows from their youth. Outside of the horror genre, the easiest way for a filmmaker to break into the business is with a story that waxes nostalgic about…well, waxing nostalgic. To its credit, Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five (*takes breath*) is more dramatically-inclined, not as rose-tinted in its gaze upon bygone times as a lot of its contemporaries. But in getting to where it wants to end up, the film proves to be unfocused and annoyingly repetitive, thanks in part to the gratuitously quirky dialogue that was required in the post-Clerks era of independent American cinema.

Before “Two and a Half Men” but well after leaving Lenny Luthor behind him, Jon Cryer starred in and co-wrote this dramedy about two guys on a hunt for the pal they forgot existed. Daniel (Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) became fast friends as kids, what with the former being an atypical geek and the latter mildly disabled. The glue that held them together was Richie (Rafael Baez), who educated them in wooing women and how to weasel out of being caught shoplifting. But Richie vanished when high school ended, and well into their adult years, Daniel and Stan finally hear word on his whereabouts. Rumored to be homeless and living in Coney Island, Richie’s emergence prompts his comrades to search not only the boardwalk but also their lives, for a sense of meaning that’s eluded them ever since the trio disbanded.

Went to Coney Island… aims to raise some delicate issues (mental illness, addiction, sexuality) with a somewhat hopeful disposition, and I applaud the effort. As hung up as the film becomes on substituting random dramatic developments for putting together a sound story, I dug that it began as an amusingly offbeat buddy farce before taking a turn for the deep. The trouble is that Went to Coney Island… seldom feels like a singular journey, instead playing out like a series of skits in which the protagonists don’t get anything accomplished. Daniel and Stan sure express concern for their missing pal, but in lieu of looking for him, they prefer to have chats with colorful side characters that tell us nothing except, yeah, the writers saw Pulp Fiction, too.

These exchanges (which include Frank Whaley’s cameo as a tightwad skee-ball merchant) might’ve been useful as profound pit stops on the road to Richie. But with such scenes varying in tone sandwiched so closely together (while our heroes postpone their quest to have a hot dog), the opportunity to jump in and care about it all never arises. In a word, Went to Coney Island… is sloppy, as clueless about how to progress to the next scene as its characters are about moving on with their lives. It lacks flow, completely disposing of those transformative moments that make its leads more than directionless bellyachers. This wants the privilege of exploring darker thematic territory without putting in the work, awarding one obnoxious, lying drunk of a character a happiest of endings that feels totally undeserved.

Went to Coney Island… is the worst kind of drama, one that piles on the sadness without any clear objective in mind. I’d say there’s some message here about rolling with the punches life deals you, but I couldn’t say which (if any) of the flick’s many aimless conversations even hints at an ultimate moral. All I know for sure after watching this is that Coney Island is a sad place come wintertime, the sideshow is a rip off, and carnies are really, really protective.

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