City Slickers (1991)
Dir. by Ron Underwood
Starring Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern
Mitch Robbins is a 39-year-old ad executive from New York City who’s going through a mid-life crisis. For his birthday, his friends Phil and Ed (who are each going through crises of their own) give him a gift of a cattle drive vacation out west. The three of them begin the trip with visions of living out their childhood cowboy fantasies, but soon discover that life on the trail is much harder and much weirder than they’d anticipated.
This is another movie from my family’s near-endless VHS collection (seriously, we had like 100 store-bought movies and probably three times that number recorded from cable TV or pay-per-view). I’d watched it enough times growing up that it’s one of the movies I took with me when I went off to college, and was one of the first dozen or so I bought on DVD when I got my first DVD player.
Growing up, and even into my twenties, I watched this movie primarily for the wacky stuff in it. Mitch’s constant motor-mouth jokes, the stampede, the running of the bulls at the beginning. Sure, I appreciated a lot of the serious scenes as well, but it was always comedy first, drama second for me. However, that’s definitely changed with this most recent viewing. And why is that?
Because I turned 39 this year. The same age as Billy Crystal in the movie.
While I’m not currently having a mid-life crisis like Mitch is (if anything, I haven’t had enough of a life so far to actually have a crisis WITH. I only just got my first-ever full-time job a month ago), I am much more cognizant this time around of my age, and how I relate to the characters in the movie. Have I really done all that I want to do with my life? Can I? Or is it already too late?
Therefore, the drama of the movie spoke to me much more than the comedy actually did. Oh, the comedy’s still funny. But this isn’t just some silly “old people doing young people things” sort of movie, like Wild Hogs. It’s got a lot of actual darkness running through it as well. Death is one of the movie’s major themes. Mitch’s wife calls him out for acting like he’s in an Ingmar Bergman film, he has an inappropriate (but still hilarious) monologue about aging to his son’s class, and it seems like every other scene on the cattle drive involves the death of an animal or a person, or else the threat of it.
Speaking of character deaths, this movie just wouldn’t be the same without Jack Palance as the trail boss Curly. Palance was a veteran of westerns going back to the 1950s, and brought a level of both gravitas and sheer badassness to the role that I don’t know if any other person, with the exception of maybe Clint Eastwood himself, could have provided. He’s only in the movie for maybe a quarter of its running time, but his presence is writ so large that Mitch takes to deliberately emulating him by the end of the film (even wearing his hat). Palance won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, and famously got down on the stage and performed one-handed pushups in front of the audience during his acceptance speech.
Being a movie from thirty years ago, there are definitely some aspects of the story which have aged or are addressed in ways that they wouldn’t be today. Given how his wife is portrayed and what we learn about their marriage in general, it’s understandable why Daniel Stern’s character of Phil may have sought out an affair. However, the movie never brings up the issue inherent in the fact that Phil was in a relationship with one of his female employees, who was significantly younger than him. This review is coming out the same week as the big Activision Blizzard sexual harassment scandal broke, and issues like this are at the forefront of my mind right now. There’s also a lot of male gaze directed at Bonnie, especially from Ed, though the movie does make it clear that the farmhands who harass her are definitely in the wrong.
Despite this, however, I still find the movie to be a fun and enjoyable comedy. Billy Crystal’s constant commentary on pretty much everything that happens around remains amusing to this day, and the scenes with him and Curly are all gold (the cliche of a character badmouthing someone who’s standing behind them is an old and tired one, but I think it’s pulled off quite well here). And I’ve always liked Bruno Kirby in pretty much everything I’ve seen him in, even if he doesn’t come off as all that likeable for most of the movie – he reminds me of a friend I had in high school, who always managed to get the rest of us into trouble.
Back around my birthday, I made jokes about wanting anything other than a cattle drive as a present, and a good number of my younger friends didn’t get the reference. They need to check this movie out, as it’s still quality.
-Yes, that IS a super-young Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Crystal’s son, in his first acting role. Took me until some time in the mid 2010s to recognize him.
-What ever happened to animated opening credits for live-action films? That definitely used to be a thing (though, you could say the same thing about opening credits in general these days).
I’ve done pretty much nothing but watch the Olympics for the past week, and I plan to do the same next week as well. As such, my next post won’t be until August 13th