Director Stuart Gordon is probably best known for his extremely violent genre films made for tiny indie production companies. But he also had an inexplicable relationship with Walt Disney Pictures, dating the late '80s when he and his producing partner Brian Yuzna, along with Ed Naha, screenwriter of the Gordon/Yuzna film Dolls, pitched a project to Disney for a family-friendly sci-fi film. This was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which Gordon ultimately had nothing to do with besides a story credit. But apparently that was enough to get Gordon in Disney's good graces, because almost a decade later, in 1998, the company (through its Touchstone label) released The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a direct-to-video family-friendly fantasy-comedy that represents the only time Gordon ever worked with a major Hollywood studio as director. And, of course, the whole "family comedy for Disney" thing.

That's enough to make The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit the wildest outlier in Gordon's directorial career, but it would make a good claim on being the weirdest entry in a great many filmographies. The scenario is pure magical realism, coming from the pen of Ray Bradbury (adapting his own 1957 short story, which he had already adapted into a stage play): in a Latin American neighborhood of East Los Angeles, five men pool their resources - $20 each - to purchase a suit of such pure, vivid white that it practically seems to glow (like... ice cream?*). They agree to share it, one day of the week for each man, but this first night, they will celebrate by each wearing it for an hour. Many amazing things happen during the night, but the most amazing of all is that these five strangers united only in that they are all have the same measurements come to be close friends. Cunning it's not.

So far, nothing too far out, but the film in its final form is a wacky live-action cartoon sharing the body of a mellow, tale of life in a poor Hispanic community. And it is very aggressive in its wackiness, hitting the ground running and never slowing during any of its jam-packed 77 minutes. There are musical numbers, montages, and the delirious spectacle of seeing the great actor Edward James Olmos commit extremely hard to the broadly comic rule of a homeless man caked in so much filth that his entire body is coal-black. There is the central performance of Joe Mantegna, everyone's favorite Latino actor, as Gomez, the con man who comes up with the suit-sharing scheme to begin with, a perilously gaudy and over-the-top bit of brownface that threatens to turn the entire movie into zany slapstick kitsch.

Still and all, the delirium and speed of the film generally work to its advantage. It opens with the first act almost entirely completed, as a young man named Martinez (Clifton Collins, Jr, at this time still using the stage name "Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez" in homage to his grandfather, actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez - who had his final role in this very film) is cornered in an alley by a shadowy figure, who pounces on him with a measuring tape. This is Gomez, who already has three-fifths of the team set up, including Villanazul (Gregory Sierra), a hapless wannabe revolutionary failing to attract anyone with his limp street preaching, and Dominguez (Esai Morales), an itinerant guitar player who gets by far the least personality of the leads. Gomez lays out the scheme in a whirlwind of patter, as the filthy Vanamos (Olmos) keeps zipping around in the background eagerly squawking about how he is exactly the same size as the others, and weirdly seems to have more money to spare than any of them. Barely a few minutes later, they've picked up the suit itself from Sid Zellman (a cameoing Sid Caesar, playing the role as the broadest possible exhausted old Jewish man), and have launched into the heart of the film, five extended comic bits in five entirely different visual and comic registers, everything from a random musical number to a bit driven entirely by camera angles as Villanazul gets to deliver his most impassioned speech ever.

The whole thing is basically playing a game of bright, well-lit colors and upbeat energy, right from the start (in the form of a beautiful credits sequence done in sand animation - the highlight of the film, honestly), and the overall mood feels like playtime for the actors. Olmos especially takes this and runs with it, playing the film's most inherently ludicrous figure and if anything making Vanamos's caricatured unreality seem even sillier and more extreme in its cartoonish energy. This is the kind of performance that comes only from aΒ  world-class actor using all his considerable powers to play a manic ball of zaniness without any hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment, and it is very much the best thing about The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. The performances are, in general, a great strength - Mantegna is trying much too hard, but Collins and Sierra are also quite good at playing two different flavors of worn-down sad sack, and Morales is limited more by the vagueness of his part than his investment in leaning into the film's exaggerated comedy.

While this is miles and miles from anything else Gordon directed onscreen, it doesn't ever feel like he's on autopilot: on the contrary, the very energy of the production obviously comes directly from his commitment to both the silliness and his belief in the warm-hearted ending. At which point it's important to mention that Gordon had directed Bradbury's play onstage - I do not know if this film grows directly out of that production, but it is at any rate a piece that benefits from the director's familiarity with where the emotions lie. And they do exist, growing naturally out of the goofy excess, sometimes very transparently in the case of Martinez and Villanazul, sad loners who find a sense of community through the suit, and very obliquely in the case of Vamanos, a bizarre joke transformed in part by Olmos and Mantegna's interplay into something like a tragic clown.

The bulk of the film is still focused on the madcap cartoon qualities of the piece, of course; Gordon and his most frequent cinematographer, Mac Ahlberg, shoot everything with a heightened brightness that seems hellbent on making things seem as colorful and artificial as the limited production budget would allow. It is not a film about the real East Los Angeles, let us say; it's more about the idea of a poor neighborhood made homey and warm by the stubborn dignity of the people who live there, and I think this is what they're trying to get at with the unnaturalism of the aesthetic. The suit itself is very much part of the unreality, always carefully situated within a tightly-defined pool of light that carves it and its wearer out of the rest of the shot; if there was nothing else admirable about the filmmaking the care with which the suit is treated would be enough.

This is, by all means, a very silly, lightweight thing; nobody's life is worse off for not having seen the film, and its disconnection from actual human reality is at odds with Gordon's clear desire to pay tribute to the Latin American communities of the Los Angeles area. Still, it's breezy and likable, and vigorously committed to being the best version it can be of the very offbeat and random thing it is. Definitely a footnote in the careers of everybody involved in making it, but Mantegna aside, nobody here has anything to be embarrassed about.




*The implication seems to be that the suit has the same vivid, soft whiteness of a delicious bowl of vanilla ice cream, which is dumb as hell - top-notch vanilla ice cream, of course, has a dingy ivory color that I think you would specifically not want a suit to be, it would look like you wore it through a sandstorm. And I am aware this is a small point, but I'm not the one who was so proud of the metaphor that I titled the story after it in three different media.