City Slickers
A little deeper than many of us recall ___ 7.5/10

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City SlickerDirected by Ron Underwood
Screenplay by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel

Billy Crystal ... Mitch Robbins
Daniel Stern ... Phil Berquist
Bruno Kirby ... Ed Furillo
Patricia Wettig ... Barbara Robbins
Helen Slater ... Bonnie Rayburn
Jack Palance ... Curly Washburn

Mitch Robbins: Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you're a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, "What happened to my twenties?" Your forties, you grow a little pot belly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother.

Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn't matter because you can't hear it anyway. Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering "how come the kids don't call?" By your eighties, you've had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can't stand but who you call Mama. Any questions?

After 20 years one forgets a lot about a popular movie, but especially this one. City Slickers was a huge box office hit and I saw it with everyone else, at the theater, then several more times on VHS. In my memory—while I certainly remember the above scary career day statement to his son's grade school class by Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal)—City Slickers is simply a comedy, like a Hope and Crosby 'On the Road' movie... a clever quip every minute by Crystal. Which you do get, and several are quite tasty.

But there's a lot more to it. A lot more. For one thing you get almost as much setup time for the main story—a tale of middle aged men recovering their joie de vivre—as you get for the main story itself. Easily half an hour transpires while we examine the lives of the three principals: Mitch and his two buddies, Phil and Ed (Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby). Mitch is questioning whether he's making any difference at all: he works for a company who sells advertising for the radio and mainly what he does is edit and pass along the work of others. We get the scene where his phlegmatic boss rides Mitch for passing on junk, not seeming to care, no longer projecting that young spark of creativity to make the work better.

Yes, you can see by the above career day quote, Mitch is realizing his mortality and questioning whether he's doing any good in life. He has a family, with two kids—the boy is actually the young Jake Gyllenhaal—and an understanding wife; she's a fan, but also sees his energy falling off in the lovemaking department. Mitch's career day presentation summarizes where he sees his life conceptually, and, ironically, Mitch's presentation follows an extremely animated presentation by another father who works on construction. The contrast could not be more effective.

Phil (Daniel Stern) has a dominating wife whose father owns a store Phil manages. So he's constantly being watched and told what to do, but he's afraid to say anything because he thinks he'll lose his job. He knuckles under and puts himself down, and on the side he succumbs to temptation with a young woman in his department. This produces some awkward moments as the cat is let out of the bag at Mitch's birthday party. Also at the birthday party Ed (Bruno Kirby) shows up with a beautiful blond bombshell; she's probably half his age and adores him, but he's marriage averse. Ed is the instigator of a series of the three men's adventures, he always feels it necessary to be doing something dangerous or exciting to remind him he's alive. Unlike Mitch and Phil, Ed's trap is that he stays alone to avoid feeling trapped. And that loneliness is beginning to wear thin.

Ed and Phil make a birthday present to Mitch of a two week cattle drive in the Wild West driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. Mitch is at first excited, but then declines, claiming that he promised his wife they'd visit her parents in Florida. Later on that evening, Barbara, having noticed Mitch's attitude and feelings during the day, suggests that he go with his friends on the cattle drive. Basically, "Mitch, take your time and fix what bothers you, get through your midlife crisis, I'll be here, I want you if you can be happy with yourself, inside."

The transition to the actual West ranch is quick and predictable. The cast of characters expands to include a black father and son who are dentists, two men who run an ice cream business, and a woman—the hot babe, Bonnie, played by Helen Slater, who in 1984 starred in the movie Supergirl. As the trail drivers settle in, we meet the owners of the ranch, who introduce us to the inimitable Curly (Jack Palance). Curly gives off menacing vibes, but his actions are all protective and nourishing to the cattle and to the people he's responsible for. He scares Mitch, but one has a hard time believing the fear is real. And in due course the two form a bond. The philosophy according to Curly is:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out.

The plot moves along and, yes, you do get a fine sense of the reality of life on the trail. The first scene of manning up comes when Mitch is charged with delivering a calf; we see what appears to be an actual delivery and it certainly looks like Billy Crystal does the work! It's quite a sequence. Later there are problems when the two fulltime hired hands go haywire. The trail riders have to decide whether to continue to bring the cattle in themselves. By this time, they've learned a bit to rope and to ride; anyway it makes a great plot turn and the writers and director make it believable.

City Slickers is almost as much a serious drama as a comedy. The conversations with Curly and among the three principals, as well as the others on the trail, serve up a number of universal questions that trouble us all, mostly from a male perspective:

  • What's real and important in life?
  • How do I measure up as a man?
  • How can I achieve my dreams?
  • Should I simply be content with what I have?
  • What is my 'one thing' and am I willing to go after it?

Then the actions the riders take to deal with their individual demons make for smooth resolutions for the most part. Jack Palance won his only Academy Award for his supporting role as Curly. [He is good, but I think Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw in JFK may have been more deserving.] In general, the movie has aged well; it probably could have been edited more adroitly but it's entertaining and an instructive vicarious ride.

2011 August 24
Copyright © Brian Wright | The Coffee Coaster™
City Slickers | Billy Crystal | Jack Palance | Change of Life | Trail Rides

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