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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

City Slickers (Reviewed by Dad)

Years ago, I took a course on how to write formula movies for Hollywood where City Slickers was used as an example of a formula pic you could set your watch to, which makes the movie a true testament to how great screenwriting transcends mechanics.

For those who missed it when it came out in 1991, City Slickers is a cowboy buddy comedy starring Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins, a New York radio-ad timeslot salesman with a loving wife, two teenage kids, and the mother of all mid-life crises.

The crisis manifests itself during Crystal’s hilarious meltdown before his young son’s class during a “Bring Your Dad to School Day” that leaves everyone in the room (kids and teacher alike) gaping and depressed.  With his wife threatening to kick him out unless his “gets his smile back,” Robbins hits the trail with two boyhood friends for a working-ranch cowboy vacation that he hopes will put his life back on track.

Those two friends are Phil (played by Daniel Stern) an affable loser stuck in one of filmdom’s most loveless marriages, and Ed (the late Bruno Kirby), a sporting goods salesman who takes time away from his underwear-model main squeeze to exorcise the chip on his shoulder by going on dangerous vacations with his two buddies Phil and Mitch.

The film actually begins with the three buddies joining the Running of the Bulls in Spain where, of course, Mitch is the one who ends up with his bottom gored.  And it’s Ed who comes up with the idea of a two-week working holiday wrangling  on a Western cattle ranch.

The boys get to the ranch in time to meet their companions for the adventure: father and son black dentists (get over it, scolds the son), doppelgangers for ice-cream kings Ben and Jerry, and the (as usual) underutilized Helen Slater.

Slater gives Mitch and friends the chance to act heroically when the film’s nemeses, a pair of no-good cowpokes, gives her a hard time.  But the day is actually saved by the dark and dangerous Curly played by the incomparable Jack Palance.

This being a formula picture, the challenges Mitch and his friends face begin light and end overwhelmingly heavy, eventually leading to a situation requiring Mitch to summon up that inner cowboy he never knew was in him.

Unlike other stars who have successfully mixed comedy and drama, notably Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, Billy Crystal doesn’t let his performances get tripped up by the secret desire to make audiences love him.  His Mitch is a pain in the butt – childish, broody, whiny – albeit a pain in the butt with a remarkable gift for wisecracking.  And it’s his willingness to play to these imperfections that generates genuine drama from formulaic scenarios.

The film also treasures quiet moments, notably short scenes featuring the three friends conversing while in the saddle, scenes which transcend broader comic and action sequences and secretly reveal the true theme of the picture: what it means to be a grown up.

The kids seem to have liked it when we shared City Slickers at a Vermont B&B.  Or so I think.  Ben?

Ben Replies: I enjoyed City Slickers, it was fun to watch, although no one expects a comedy to be groundbreaking, and Slickers was not.

As someone who’s not super familiar with older comedies, this cowboy laugh-out-loud reminded me a bit of Anchorman, Zoolander or Ted: hilarious in a fun kind of way, full of people being stupid, and brimming with bright but not very real characters. Every scene is fun and the cast is great. But with every cliche (and an overly long saving-a-calf scene), I’m reminded that, having heard City Slickers  was an Oscar winner, I was secretly hoping that it would be more than just enjoyable.  Although I enjoyed the film a lot, groundbreaking it was not.

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