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The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit
(1998)
 

Director: Stuart Gordon                 
Cast:
Joe Mantegna, Esai Morales, Edward James Olmos


It's nice that major studios are getting into the made-for-video market. As a result, we're seeing made-for-video movies with better production values and more bang for the buck. Tremors 2 was a pretty good follow-up (I loved that elephant gun!), and I'll admit, despite the almost completely negative reviews, that From Dusk To Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money provided enough guilty pleasure for me to give a recommendation (though I admit I was puzzled by that opening sequence, and I wanted to strangle the director at times for those insane POV shots he kept using but hey, you get to see a whole mess of cops get slaughtered!) But I admit that when I heard about Stuart Gordon directing the major studio made-for-video The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, I was taken aback. I mean, this is from a director who gave us Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Fortress. And now he's doing an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story. And not one with sci-fi or serious fantasy tones. Plus, I wanted gore, dammit! But I decided to give it a try, and I'm glad I did. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit is a lovely movie, warm-hearted and just bursting with joy. Though it's not perfect, it's strong enough in its story and production values to have deserved a full theatrical release.

I must admit with some embarrassment that I've never read any Ray Bradbury before, except for some EC comic book adaptations originally published in the 50s. I don't think I'd even heard the title of this particular Bradbury story before. To my surprise, Bradbury himself wrote the screenplay for this movie, so it seems very likely to be at least reasonably close to the original short story. Set in modern east L.A., the movie centers around several Hispanic men who are down on their luck. A shifty looking man named Gomez (Mantagna) pulls recently evicted Martinez (Clifton Gonzalez Gonzales) off the street into a pool hall where struggling guitar player Domingez (Morales) and struggling public speaker Villanazul (Gregory Sierra) are waiting. Martinez is puzzled when Gomez has all of them measured and weighed, especially when he sees that they are all around the same height and weight. He is soon told that a closing suit store in the neighborhood has a white suit for sale - ah, but not just any old suit - the other three are convinced this ice cream-colored suit is magical, and will do special things for them. They are so enthusiastic, Martinez quickly offers his last $20 to chip in to buy the suit, and the other three do so as well, but find themselves $20 short for the $100 suit. Reluctantly, they allow Vamonos (Olmos), the filthiest and craziest bum in the entire neighborhood, to chip in $20 so the suit can be bought and then shared among the men for one hour each that night. What adventures will happen to the men that night? Will Gomez flee to El Paso when it's his turn to wear the suit? Will the suit be irreparably damaged when human junk pile Vamonos has his turn? But most importantly, will everyone's dreams come true?

One of the flaws in the movie comes apparent in the beginning of the movie. Soon after all the characters have met and made their plans, we still don't know very much about these characters. We know that Dominguez makes a living (maybe) by playing his guitar on the corner, that Villanazul has a desire to express his views to the public, and by the looks of the thick layer of dirt on the Cheech Marin-like Vamonos, he has been on the street for a long time, but that's it. So little time is given to establishing these characters, that it would be difficult to build sympathy for the characters and root for them. But amazingly, it is pulled off. Director Gordon does this by having his actors put as much enthusiasm in their performances as possible. When the actors shriek with joy or fear, we feel their excitement and fear; we want them to succeed! From this, we know we don't have to learn anything more about them - we know they are the kind of people we want as friends. And in just a short night, we see these characters, who didn't know each other, start to build friendships. Friendship and the joys it brings are topics not often covered in movies. Here is one movie that shows how doors in your life and others can form when you are friends with people. The movie ends on an open note, with us not knowing what will happen to the men the next day, yet with their friendship, you'll sense that everything will be okay - all of them will be there for the others.

The characters are also put through activities that show off their likeability as well. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is after the five men have bought the suit. With the suit in a box, they are seen yelling with joy dancing applauding cheering oh don't drop the box while running down the street. Then we see each man get his time to wear the suit, and fulfill one of their secret fantasies. These men do not wish for riches or real power - their fantasies are simple and down to earth. For example, Domiguez wishes people would respond to his music, and when he wears the suit, he goes to another apartment building to play a song for the tenants - and getting a response he never would have dreamed of. The simpleness of their dreams make us like them more than, say if they were wishing for something like a suitcase filled with $100 bills, or a sports car. (Interestingly, there's a suggestion that the suit may not be magical, but just gives the men the self confidence they seem to need.)

When the filthy Vamonos gets his chance to wear the suit for an hour, the other significant flaw in the movie occurs. The scene runs too long. There's nothing wrong with the setup - Vamonos goes to a nightclub while the other four men sneak behind him, cringing in fear that he'll ruin the suit with food or by getting into a fight - but the sequence is very padded. A slow-motion fight in the nightclub is not only padded by the slow motion, but the fight scene would have taken a long time even at normal speed. And then the action eventually makes its way to the street where an ongoing conflict gets further extended, which not only doesn't really fit in the movie, but also goes on too long. It would have been best to have shortened this sequence, and used the time cut out to better establish the characters at the beginning.

Fortunately, those two flaws are the only things wrong with this movie that I can think of. Overall, it's a great movie. Though advertised as a comedy, and there are a number of humorous moments, it's really a kind of adventure, with us hoping the five characters will triumph in the end. I shouldn't forget the actors' contribution to the movie; all five actors give excellent performances, most notably Mantagna, the sleazy ringleader with a heart of gold (I love his pronunciation of "juicy tacos"), and Olmos, in a surprising comic performance that you wouldn't expect from an actor known for so many serious movies. It's also nice to see underrated actor Morales in a movie (I was shocked that he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for his work in La Bamba); though he doesn't have much dialogue as Olmos or Mantagna, he has real screen presence.

Here's a rarity for The Unknown Movies - a PG-rated movie! It's a movie that's safe for the whole family, though I can't for the life of me figure out why this harmless movie got a PG rating (probably for a very quick mild profanity or two that I missed.) It probably won't take much effort to get the kids to watch this with you. They will be hooked by the awesome warm colored animated opening credits, and they will be able to follow the simple but sweet story. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit might last only around 80 minutes, but it's worth full price.

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Check for availability of the stage version of this and other Bradbury tales

See also: The Rivals, White Wolves, Breezy

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