During my “Space Truckers” review, I noted how Stuart Gordon has primarily directed gory horror movies and goofy sci-fi movies. Maybe the director was becoming aware of that pigeon-holing too. For his eleventh feature, he would radically shift gears and direct a family film. A PG rated family film made by Disney, no less. (Unsurprisingly, the poster doesn't say it's “from the director of “Re-Animator.””) Upon closer examination, there's a pretty clear reason why Gordon would direct “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” The film was based on a stage play, adapted by Ray Bradbury from his own short story. Gordon had previously directed a stage production of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” and obviously decided, then and there, that the story would make a fine film.
In East Los Angeles, Gomez is known to be a conman. Despite this, he has roped four other guys into his latest scheme. Five guys will each chip in twenty dollars so they can purchase a gleaming white suit from a local shop. The guys each wear the suit for an hour that night, the ice cream suit seemingly having a magical effects on their lives. Martinez, a love-lorn young man, gains the courage to ask his beautiful neighbor out. Guitar player Domiguez attracts attention for his music. Poet Villanazul develops an audience for his way with words. Bum Vamanos, meanwhile, cleans up his life. Yet Gomez is still planning to wear the suit and skip town. Will its whimsical properties make him change his mind?
“The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” is the third version of this story from Ray Bradbury. He wrote the original short story, adapted it for the theater, and would then write the screenplay for this film. As the title suggest, it's is a fairly goofy comedy. There's a farcical streak in the air from the earliest minutes, when Gomez chases Martinez into a alleyway... Just to measure him with a tape measure. Yet the silly comedy is not what marks “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” as Bradbury's work. Instead, it's the story's element of whimsical, magical-realism. The film is seemingly set in our world but little, fantastical touches distinguish it. People break into sound and dance on the streets. Simple words can stir a crowd to march across the city. And a white suit can change somebody's life. His earlier work may not suggest it but Gordon nails this tone fantastically.
One, however, must remember that Bradbury's story was written back in 1957. “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” was certainly a more than fair depiction of Latin-American life back in the late fifties. To modern sensibilities, it can appear a little less sensitive. Yes, everyone in the story is very poor. Gomez lives in near poverty, the others eventually co-habituating with him. One of those characters is a homeless man, always filthy, who is fond of smoking, drinking, and eating tacos. The story concludes near a bar, in a scene that features chubby mamachita, a muscle car, and a guy named Toro. And, like I said, one of the main characters is played by a man in brownface. So the film was obviously intended to be a sincere celebration of this culture. At times, however, it comes off as a little stereotypical.
As I said, “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” is Stuart Gordon's first (and thus far only) PG-rated family film. Yes, the movie was produced by Disney. However, the Mouse Factory chose to distribute it under their Touchstone label. And it's easy to see why. I'm not sure if the film would get a PG rating today. One character is constantly smoking, a habit the MPAA comes down on a lot harder today. There's also constant references to drinking. Most surprisingly, in the last act, a character is greeted by what appears to be a prostitute. When the other guys point out that he only has five minutes in the suit left, he decides that's more than enough. It's still pretty tame but, considering the PG-rating is now solely the domain of squecky clean family fair, the content is still a little edgier than expected.
The other side of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit's” tone is its goofier comedy. This farcical side grows as the film goes on, becoming especially notable by the end. When Vamanos puts on the suit, he immediately does what the others told him not to do. He heads to a local bar, drinking, smoking, and eating. Dancing with Ruby, a popular woman at the bar, enrages her boyfriend, Toro. The other four guys immediately intervene, not wanting the suit to get damaged in a fight. Each man convinces Toro to punch them instead, sometimes multiple times. Gordon plays this was broadly as possible, the punches coming in slow motion, the men grimacing ridiculously. This builds towards an even sillier scene, Toro attempting to run Vamanos down with his car. The climax is even goofier, featuring the bum leaping atop the moving vehicle. It's silly stuff but admittedly enjoyable.
“The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” probably wouldn't work at all if it wasn't for the cast. Yes, it takes a minute to accept Joe Mantegna as Gomez, a Hispanic man. Once you get over that, Mantegna's performance becomes quite good. He has an impressive comedic energy, making the character active and enjoyable. Clifton Collins Jr., previously seen in “Fortress,” appears as Martinez, the lovelorn kid. Collins projects a pure sincerity, making him perfect for a part like this. Collins' gee-whiz attitude makes you root for this kid, in his journey to find love and connect with the woman of his dreams.
Of the central five characters, only one strikes the viewer as unlikable. Vamanos first appears covered in dirt and grime, with a full beard. His appearance is such that, at first, you don't even realizes its Edward James Olmos playing him. The way the character is treated strikes the viewer as slightly mean-spirited. Gomez cruelly dismisses him several times, usually off-handedly. Yet you kind of understand this reaction, as Vamanos is kinda' annoying. He shouts and mugs. However, as the other four grow attached to the character, so does the audience. At the end, when Vamanos insists the others remove the suit so it doesn't get damaged, you've grow quite fond of him.
Yes, “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” has a clear sentimental streak. It's a movie about friendship and trying to achieve one's dreams, even when life around you is hard. The film concludes with a touching scene of the five guys bonding over what they've accomplished that day, reflecting on what friendship has brought them. It comes dangerously close to being sappy. Yet “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit's” utmost sincerity keeps the film from feeling treacly or preachy. You're happy to see these guys achieve their dreams. Moreover, you're happy to see them find each other. That sweetness helps smooth over some of the tonal inconsistencies.