Synopsis: Comic genius Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally) stars in this hilarious film about cowboys, careers and mid-life crises. Co-starring Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby and Jack Palance in an Academy Award®-winning role, City Slickers is “the rowdiest western jokefest since Blazing Saddles (Rolling Stone). It’ll rope you in…and keep you laughing from first frame to last.
New Yorker Mitch Robbins (Crystal) is 39 and miserable. He’s tired of his job and bored with his life. And his two best friends Ed (Kirby) and Phil (Stern) aren’t doing much better. So when they all decide to chase their troubles away with a fantasy vacation, Mitch and his pals trade their briefcases for saddle bags and set out to find freedom and adventure herding cattle under the wide New Mexico sky. But what they discover instead is scorching sun, sore backsides…and more insight into themselves – and each other – than they ever thought possible!
City Slickers 8.0
Mitch Robbins: “Have you ever had that feeling that this is the best I’m ever gonna do, this is the best I’m ever gonna feel… and it ain’t that great?”
Station Manager: “Happy Birthday.”
For decades I’ve been hearing about middle-aged men and their midlife crises. It’s become a cliché that a guy will get himself a new, slicker, faster car to feel young again. He will also often get himself a new, slicker, faster woman to feel young again. It doesn’t seem to matter what the consequences might be, or even how ridiculous he gets, so long as he gets to hit the “reset” button of his life.
As I got older, lost more of my hair and crawled closer to middle age, I often wondered if this would happen to me. Would I be so directionless at that age? Would I suddenly wonder what my life is worth? Would I wake up one day and wonder where I’d gone wrong? Would I feel trapped in a prison of my own creation? Would I feel the need to escape it, if not permanently, then at least temporarily?
I think that I did most of that worrying when I was twenty, when I had no idea what to do with the seemingly endless years ahead. That’s when I set myself a few simple goals to be happy, including finding stable work that I enjoy (and that also pays the bills!), finding a home I can live and retire in, and finding a partner I can share life with and who would help me to be a better person.
But there’s an additional element that is quite essential and is likely universal: it’s to have the company and support of great friends, of people you can count on and that create a through line in your memory. It sounds easy enough, but it seems to me that, after high school or college, bumping into people who have the time to invest becomes more and more difficult.
I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve made some exceptional friends along the way, many of whom I’ve known for half a life, if not longer. These are people that I’m still in touch with to this day and that I spend time with regularly, continuing to build a history together, even though we each have our own respective responsibilities and separate activities. I couldn’t have gotten here without them.
‘City Slickers’ isn’t just about midlife crises, about rekindling interest in one’s life, it’s about friendship.
Mitch may have suddenly lost sight of the meaning of his life, but he’s kept his friends in sight. Granted, he probably couldn’t escape Ed and Phil even if his sanity depended on it, as they seem to constantly be dragging him into one new adventure after another – but he obviously appreciates their continued presence and shares enough in common with them to excuse their quirks and foibles.
And that’s why, when they offer him a cattle drive experience for his 39th birthday, he actually goes along with it. He wouldn’t have done it if not for them, as it’s clearly not his idea of a good time – but he’d seen far worse before, and he needed the distraction. And who better to do it with? Pushed along by his spouse, who likely needed a break from his worries and neuroses, he went on this unique journey.
When I first saw ‘City slickers’, back when it was first released, I was won over by it wholesale – the concept, the script, the cast, the comedy, the drama… all of it. I simply adored it. And I wasn’t alone: it was such a monumental success that they managed to revive a dead character just so as to hammer out a sequel (an infinitely inferior film, I might add ).
I had discovered Billy Crystal’s talent not long before, in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, and this one sealed the deal. I loved how he managed to make his characters funny and three-dimensional at once: he was sarcastic and made hilarious observations, but he also expressed real-world concerns that are common to many and dealt with them in ways that made complete sense to me, even if I didn’t always relate.
Granted, he’s not the best actor in the world, but he’s quite good at overlapping humour and drama at once – and that’s a rare feat. He is also quite good at delivering lines, even if his body language (in particular, his facial expressions) is not always entirely credible. In ‘City Slickers’, thankfully, the rest of the cast is of similar calibre, so it makes for fairly “even” picture.
But it’s also the weak point of the film. While I’ve never seen Jack Palance in better form, he’s not given much(enough to garner an Oscar, mind you – for what that’s worth). Bruno Kirby is terrific, but is always slightly over-the-top, and Daniel Stern is decent but doesn’t do extreme emotions especially well, coming off as slightly erratic and sit com-y. As for Helen Slater, well, she is just there – an improvement over past performances. She’s still cute, though (although she’s lost too much weight by then ).
I’ve seen worse, of course, but ‘City Slickers’ would have benefitted tremendously from exceptional performances. With a story so rich in emotion, filled with real people with real problems, it would have been nice to see them given true life, for them to be made truly three-dimensional. With better performances, this film could have been worthy of numerous Oscar nominations. I think it had that potential.
Of course, having said this, better actors may not have had the same group dynamics. And it’s a known fact that better actors aren’t necessarily good comedians. So, while one can dream of award-winning performances, there’s also the possibility that, by changing the cast, the magic would be gone, impossible to recreate with others. Perhaps the entire experience would gain a stronger emotional core, but squander the humour in process, losing its balance.
Aside from the cast, the strength of the film is its script. Lowell Ganz and Babalou Mandel, writers of ‘Splash’, ‘Parenthood’, and ‘A League of their Own’, injected ‘City Slickers’ with a down-to-earth mix of seriousness and light commentary. It’s this blend that makes the film as pleasing as it is, because not only does the audience laugh all the way through the various misadventures, but it can also understand and/or relate to the characters.
Unfortunately, there are a few lines that were obviously conceived for the trailer, as taglines, or quick zips, as they would never be spoken in any context or for any other reason. For instance, when Mitch is being carried off by a cow and he yells “I’m on vacation!”, he’s not saying this for anyone’s benefit but ours, as he’s alone with Curly and Curly doesn’t care. And, really, there’s no reason for Mitch to say this anyway. Not even to be sarcastic: he was holding on for dear life, after all.
Nonetheless, I think that ‘City Slickers’ is probably as good as it could have gotten. Crystal, Kirby and Stern play off of each other incredibly well (Crystal and Kirby have worked a few times together and it shows), and the overall impression is that it’s a well-made film with a lot of heart. I think that it’s going to remain a favourite of mine for many years to come. Heck, it’s already survived over two decades and has done so with grace.
I wish that I had watched this on my last birthday, though. It would have been a perfect contrast to my own experience, would have made us all laugh, and it would have given the lot of us something to discuss afterwards, given that most of us are in that specific demographic. But I’ll try to keep ‘City Slickers’ in mind for future birthdays – especially if I know anyone who faces a midlife crisis and needs a little light food for thought. And a little lift.
As for me, my life is full of good things. For all of these things I’m extremely grateful. And thanks to it all I can’t fathom waking up one morning wondering why my life isn’t any better than it currently is. Unlike Mitch, I haven’t reconsidered the value of my life. Perhaps I will when I’m 49, or even 59, as I escape those “dreadful” middle age years and start creeping slowly towards the twilight years.
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?”