City Slickers (1991) – Directed by Ron Underwood – Starring Billy Crystal, Jack Palance, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Patricia Wettig, Helen Slater, Bill Henderson, Phill Lewis, Josh Mostel, David Paymer, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
I love CITY SLICKERS.
It is by no means a perfect movie. It still astounds me 20 years after its release that the film spends its opening half hour following a mopey Billy Crystal around New York, and every single time Crystal says, “Hellooooooo” I want to punch him right through my television, but CITY SLICKERS is a wonderful movie, full of good humor and flawed, but likable, characters. It’s one of these “white men having a middle age crisis” movies, but there’s none of the cinematic pretension one finds in dreary nonsense like American Beauty.
Mitch (Crystal) has just turned 39, and his birthday is an annual cause for concern for his family and friends because each birthday turns him morose. He’s under-performing at his job, he depresses kids at his son’s (Jake Gyllenhaal, in his movie debut) “father’s career day” at school, and his wife (Patricia Wettig) is at her wit’s end with him, telling him he’s not welcome to come along with the rest of the family when they head to Florida to visit her parents.
Mitch’s two best pals are also in a bad spot. Phil (Daniel Stern) is married to a cartoonishly horrible woman, who has disdain for everything – including, apparently, Phil’s penis since he insinuates that they’re in a sexless marriage and have been for over a decade. Phil feels stuck because he manages a grocery store owned by her father and he’s too old to start over. As he tells Mitch, when you’ve reached their age, you are what you are. Ed’s problem is a little less depressing – he’s just married a hot, young, underwear model but he’s wary of having kids because he doesn’t know if he can stay faithful to her for the rest of his life. For Mitch’s 39th birthday, Phil and Ed buy them all a 2-week working vacation on a cattle ranch in New Mexico, where they will herd cattle on a drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Phil says he can’t go, his wife tells him he’s not coming with them and he’s got two weeks to find his smile again. If he can’t, they’ll “jump off that bridge when they come to it.”
What’s striking about watching CITY SLICKERS this time around is that I am now roughly the same age as Mitch and the boys are, which is bad because it makes me feel old, yet I feel none of the mid-life angst that they do, which is good. (And to carry it further, I’m not in a job I hate like Mitch and I’m not married to a dreadful woman like Phil, but I’m also not currently dating an underwear model, so I take a narrow 2-1 victory over the fellas in that department.) I was kinda surprised when it’s revealed that Mitch is 39 because Billy Crystal has always seemed like he’s 50-something to me, so to suddenly find myself at roughly the same point is kinda shocking.
They head to New Mexico, where they meet their traveling companions: a black father and son pair of dentists from Baltimore, two fat Jewish ice cream makers, a gorgeous woman who’s friend decided not to come at the last second, two idiot cowboys (one of them played by Kyle Secor), and one old-fashioned cowboy (Jack Palance) named Curly.
One of the bits that makes SLICKERS so enjoyable is how the acknowledge and play with the idea of personal hang-ups. When Mitch meets Ben Jessup (Bill Henderson) and his son Steven (Phill Lewis), he remarks, “You’re both dentists!” and Steven says, “That’s right. We’re both dentists and we’re both black. Let’s not make a big deal out of it.” Ben scolds his kid, “They’re not. You are.” When Bonnie (Helen Slater) arrives and says her friend has ditched her and she feels alone and doesn’t know if she should stay, all of the men eagerly assure her she should stay. The Shalowitzes (Johs Mostel and David Paymer) are ice cream moguls (clearly intended to be riffs on Ben and Jerry) but they’re not the Ira and Barry in the TV commercials because, as Barry asks Mitch, “Would you buy ice cream from us?” The two young cowboys clearly feel like they’re not as manly as Curly, and overcompensate by drinking, shooting, and generally acting like jackasses. Mitch’s insecurities are manifested in his humorous digs at other people, and Ed’s fear of monogamy comes out when he’s constantly prodding Mitch about cheating on his wife with Bonnie. (Such as when they stare at her ass as she rides her horse in front of them, and Ed says, “I like your ass. Can I wear it as a hat?)
None of these extra characters are really all that developed but they work because they’re simply but realistically constructed, and none of them are defined simply by their types. There’s some give to all of them. You feel all of them are here for their own reasons and have their own issues to work out, and apart for the final act when the group splits, we could just as easily be watching this movie with Ben and Steven or Ira and Barry at the center of the story and Mitch, Phil, and Ed at the periphery.
As a Western, CITY SLICKERS fits into the genre in mostly subtle, resonant waves of what was transformed into what is. There’s a bit of nostalgia for the past, shown mostly through the character of Curly, but this is a battle the west has already lost. The Wild days are over and done with, and even Curly, as old and weathered as he is, would have come of age during World War II, so it’s hardly like he was hanging out with Butch, Sundance, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid. Curly, then, is less representative of the West and more a stand-in for the “Greatest Generation” archetype of men who were singular, hard, and unburdened by “modern” concerns with one’s place in the world.
Strikingly, SLICKERS doesn’t revel in that old timey toughness; they introduce Curly as the binary to Mitch but then reveal that the two men have more in common that their generic types. Curly might be “the toughest man” Mitch ever saw, but the relevant difference between them isn’t that Mitch is a wise-ass while Curly grunts, or that Curly is physically tough while Mitch isn’t, or that Curly is a cowboy while Mitch is a city slicker – the relevant difference between them is simply that Curly knows what the “one thing” is while Mitch doesn’t.
The “one thing,” as Mitch comes to realize, isn’t the same for everyone, but rather each individual has their own “one thing,” the thing that’s most important to them. Curly has it and so his life is content; Mitch doesn’t, and so his life isn’t.
It’s telling that SLICKERS’ signature moment isn’t a gunfight but the birth of a calf. When Curly takes Mitch off to gather some strays from the herd (Mitch caused a stampede with his automatic coffee grinder), they come across a cow that’s fallen onto her side and is in pain, about to give birth. Curly and Mitch team up to birth the calf, which is turned around in the mother’s belly. Curly holds the front and Mitch pulls the baby free, which then lays on top of him, all goopy and bloody with his mother’s insides. As Mitch is full of joy, naming the calf Norman, his revelry is interrupted by Curly shooting the mother. Mitch can’t understand it, but Curly tells him the mother was suffering and this was the thing that had to be done. It’s CITY SLICKERS’ perfect moment – the hardened reality of the old, untamed west coming together with the sympathies of the cultured east. Neither version of life is right or wrong in totality, but they are both right in their specific moment.
Both Mitch and Curly, after all, stand up to the two young cowboys when they harass Bonnie; Mitch just does it with humor while Curly does it with physical intimidation. And while the film certainly gives preferential treatment to violence – the cowboys are stopped first by Curly, and then later when they’re threatening Norman, it’s Ed and Phil who stop them through physical force – neither Mitch nor Curly’s methods are shown to be wrong.
After Mitch dies and the two young cowboys take off, the group decides that’s it. Only Ed and Phil decide to stick around and finish the cattle drive, but then Mitch triumphantly returns, now wearing a cowboy hat instead of his Mets’ cap. The three men blindly push on, looking for the river and then the valley that will lead them to their destination. Again, it’s telling that the big action scene in SLICKERS isn’t a gunfight or some kind of one-on-one physical confrontation, but the three men herding the cattle across a raging river in a downpour. Why they don’t just wait until the rain is over is a contrivance of the plot, but it is a really effective, really emotional scene as the men manage to get the herd across. As they’re celebrating their triumph, Mitch realizes that Norman is too small to cross the river and he goes back to save him, resulting in the two of them being sent hurtling down the river and in need of Ed and Phil to save them.
It’s a wonderful sequence, and Mitch’s true moment of epiphany as he risks himself for someone else; for the guy obsessed with his own mortality, it’s a real moment of triumph for him to risk everything to save this little calf. The rescue is followed immediately by them driving the herd to their destination. The joy is momentary, however, as they realize that these cows are destined for the slaughterhouse and not a return trip to New Mexico. The guys are crushed; “these cows trusted us,” Mitch laments, and we see here another moment where reality and sympathy collide. The cows are sold to slaughter, but Mitch ends up taking Norman home with him.
It’s a completely ridiculous idea, of course, that Mitch is going to take this cow back to his city apartment, but when the porter at the airport arrives and Mitch takes Norman out of what looks like a big dog crate, it’s a truly transcendent moment. (There probably aren’t 10 scenes in movie history that make me happier than seeing Norman step out of that crate – and I say this as someone who likes himself a steak or burger every now and then.) Curly had chided Mitch for being one of these typical guys who gets all knotted up for 50 weeks and then come west for vacation, thinking two weeks in the west can make everything right. For Mitch, however, that’s at least what the two weeks out west has done – it has showed him what’s important and what isn’t, and Mitch goes home a better man, not because he can rope cattle or shoot a gun or because he’s become some past, idealized version of American masculinity, but because he’s realized his own “one thing.” What’s important – truly important – to Mitch isn’t his own mortality, but what he can do in his life for those that depend on him.
What I like most about CITY SLICKERS is that it’s a film about connecting with people, and it never forgets that this is a movie about friendship, happiness, and finding one’s place in the world. What makes Mitch miserable in New York isn’t his job or the crowded city, and what makes Mitch happy in the west isn’t the wide open landscapes – it’s about realizing who is is and what’s important. The west allows him to do this because of the isolation and the openness, but also because it’s a change of pace. You could easily do this movie in reverse, and have three cowboys going through a mid-life crisis head to New York in order to figure out what’s important to them because it’s the alien nature of the experience that puts your life into focus, not just the act of herding cows.
I remember back when this film was out that Crystal said something like CITY SLICKERS would never win the Academy Award but that he doubted people would have a more enjoyable time at any movie that year.
I agree, and it’s a shame (and one of the main reasons I think Awards are completely stupid and not worth worrying about) that a movie like CITY SLICKERS didn’t get a best picture nod, but utter tripe like like The Prince of Tides, whitewashed history like Bugsy, and speculative propaganda like JFK (which succeeds greatly as a film and fails magnificently at reality – not that reality was ever Stone’s intent) can be held up as the best of Hollywood and something as enjoyable and subtly meaningful as CITY SLICKERS doesn’t get to stand alongside the two well-deserving Best Picture noms that year (Silence of the Lambs and Beauty and the Beast), and can only be used to give Jack Palance a well-earned lifetime achievement award dressed up as the Best Supporting Actor trophy.