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'Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God...Be Back by Five'
An insightful look at life, friendship
(CNN) -- "Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God ... Be Back by Five," has been a mission of love for actor Jon Cryer.
This small, independent movie, which he co-wrote, co-produced and stars in, is loosely based on two incidents from his own life. One was an eerie midwinter visit to Coney Island with a childhood buddy; the other a disturbing search for a missing friend who was rumored to be homeless.
Cryer, who began work on the film in 1997, is joined by director Richard Sckenkman, who worked with the actor on 1996's "The Pompatus of Love." This latest effort of theirs has won a fistful of film-festival awards, and is opening slowly across the country in small theaters.
The movie flashes back and forth between present day and the 1970s and '80s, when three young men were growing up on the streets of New York. The fellows had a code: Whenever one said they're on a mission from God the other two would drop everything and follow along.
The code works, too, because Daniel (Cryer), Stan (Rick Stear) and Richie (Rafael Baez) are inseparable growing up. Daniel is the smart one, the glue that holds the group together. Stan is the adventurous one. Richie is the ladies' man, regaling his pals with wild tales of his adolescent sexual exploits.
But is he really so wild? One day, Daniel hears through the high school grapevine that Richie is all talk and no action: He's never actually been with a girl. When Daniel calls Richie on his suspected lies, Richie freaks out and leaves the trio, devoting himself from that moment on to helping raise his little sister Allegra.
Richie has a secret: He's gay. One day, while taking care of Allegra, he starts flirting with a male store clerk, and when he isn't looking the little girl is struck by a car and killed.
This pushes Richie over the edge emotionally, and he disappears. Daniel and Stan, ignorant of Richie's sexuality and the circumstances of the accident, know only that they miss their friend.
And so the years go by, until suddenly the guys are in their 20s. Daniel is stuck in a dead-end job, and Stan is turning into a raging alcoholic on the verge of losing the woman he loves.
One day, Stan visits Daniel at work. "We're on a mission from God," he announces, and a reluctant Daniel agrees to follow his old friend.
Perhaps this is a mission with divine implications, too. Stan has heard that Richie is homeless and living under the boardwalk at Coney Island in the middle of winter. Their search for Richie turns into a search for their own redemption.
Along the way, the two meet a demented photographer, a hostile Skee-Ball attendant -- played with brilliant intensity by Frank Whaley -- and a man seeking reconciliation with a strange-looking person named Julie. Each meeting reveals some grand truth about life -- thereby illuminating the fact that Daniel and Stan need to examine facets of their own lives.
Eventually, their search for Richie sheds light on their own demons, and they finally find their lost friend -- themselves, too.
Schenkman handles the flashbacks with ease as he incorporates them into present-day action. He and Adam Beckman, the director of photography, have also turned a bleak and gray Coney Island into a metaphor for the lives of the young men who have refused to move along with life and have been left behind as a result.
Cryer gives an earnest, heartfelt performance, Stear is good as he makes his film debut and Baez is touching as the lost and confused Richie
But the conclusion is less than satisfying. Stan and Daniel never discover Richie's secret about his sexuality, nor do they learn about his tragic guilt regarding his sister's death. This script, written by Cryer and Schenkman, leaves a rich and potentially poignant thread of the storyline just sitting there. Nevertheless, the film's message about love, growing up and the limits of friendship is still intact, and it's worth seeing.
"Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God...Be Back by Five" opened in limited release on Friday, September 8, and will open slowly across the country. Rated NC-17. 90 minutes.
Jon Cryer: Actor, writer, producer, 'Duckie'
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God...Be Back by Five
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