City Slickers (1991) dir. Ron Underwood
Starring: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Helen Slater, David Paymer, Joshua Mostel
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
Taking a second helping of a movie you recall enjoying from many years ago can often be supremely pleasurable. In my experience, it is seldom disappointing. That said, it usually only works with movies that you REALLY enjoyed as opposed to movies that you mildly, if not vaguely enjoyed. Also, the movies that seem to date the worst are movies from the more recent past – the reason for which seems a bit elusive, though I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that contemporary culture and society is generally so pathetic, uninteresting and bereft of any real class and/or romance that the RECENT past seems to take on even more pitiable status when presented within the context of a feature length motion picture.
Such a motion picture is ‘City Slickers’ – an extremely popular (in its time) feature comedy that has dated very badly indeed. Not that it was ever especially good, but I always remember it having enough of an amiable quality at the time to not only make me recall it favourably, but even instill a bit of excitement at the prospect of going back to it again. Alas, time has definitely not been kind to “City Slickers”. It’s a by-the-numbers fish-out-of-water comedy with a group of men on a mid-life crisis quest for manhood as they leave the comfy confines of the city for a dude-ranch-sponsored cattle drive aimed at … well, groups of men on a mid-life crisis quest for manhood.
As I suffered through this surprisingly plodding comedy, I kept wondering why I had fond memories of it. The laughs are few and far between and not especially inspired and worst of all; most of the cast speaks as if they’re in a small-screen situation comedy. The plight of the central characters is especially offensive – they are, after all, disgusting baby-boomers who spend much of their time whining about how empty their lives are and how they need to fill them with something that can remind them of their lost youth. Ugh! How are we supposed to relate to a generation of losers who had everything handed to them on a silver platter and still managed to screw everything up for all of us Generation X, Y and Z-ers?
The Judd Apatow schlubs of contemporary screen comedies (like the “Forty Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”, etc.) are at least aware of what losers they are. They revel in their schlubiness, they celebrate it, and they embrace their inner loserdom. They don’t whine like these pathetic baby boomers and are all the funnier and enjoyable for their utter comfort in loserville.
Billy Crystal is especially gross in this picture as it is his mid-life crisis that we’re forced to spend most of our time with and he’s the worst offender of the sit-com-style delivery of lines. Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern are also pretty hard to take, but at least they’re not quite as borscht-belt schticky as Crystal. Interestingly enough, Crystal’s style of performance and delivery was perfect in “Mr. Saturday Night” where he played a borscht-belter and, of course, his appearances over the years as host of the Oscars have been thoroughly memorable and engaging. Crystal just doesn’t suit this kind of picture. He either needs to play bigger than life characters a la Mr. Saturday Night or stay on television hosting variety shows.
It’s really the supporting cast of “City Slickers” that shines. For example, Joshua Mostel and David Paymer are genuinely engaging as the ice-cream barons looking for adventure – there’s a gentle, schlub-like quality to their characters and line-delivery that’s pleasing, human and genuinely funny. They’re closer to the Seth Rogens of the world than Crystal, Kirby and Stern.
And that brings us to the one performance that cannot be ignored in “City Slickers” – the Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor – Jack Palance. From the moment Palance appears onscreen as the tough-as-nails boss of the cattle drive, it is apparent who the real star of this picture is. Palance commands the screen with the kind of bigger-than-life quality that the likes of Billy Crystal can never attain. His handsome, craggy, weather-worn face, that wry smile, those twinkling devilish eyes, those magnificent cheek bones that reach for the ends of the universe – Jack Palance is ALL MAN and then some! He chews the scenery with the irascible skill and charm of an Old Master and as the picture unspools, it becomes obvious why anyone would have fond memories of “City Slickers”. Jack Palance steals the show and then some – just as he did when he claimed his Oscar for his work in the film and proceeded to do a set of spectacular one-armed push-ups to prove to the world that old actors were in great shape and needed to keep working.
It’s Jack Palance’s show all the way and the sole reason why anyone would have fond memories of this picture, but it has dated and dated badly. At one point, Crystal’s character chides someone’s behaviour as being not “90s” enough. This, of course, is the moment that sticks out like a sore thumb because the picture is not only SET in the 90s, but it’s a style of navel-gazing baby-boomer humour that feels so firmly rooted in the 90s. The picture just doesn’t have the stuff to transcend its clunky storytelling - which is as much about how movies like this were made during that period as it is about the pre-occupations of both the filmmakers and audiences of the time.
“City Slickers” is as wizened and petrified as the baby boomers it represents. It’s the work of men who were old before they were really old, and now that they and their film is even older – it’s all the more pathetic.