Aww, couldn’t you just put that on a T-shirt for your dad?
These days, Billy Crystal is enjoying a late-stage victory lap as a Holywood Elder Statesman. If you’re under 30 you might not know it, but the guy used to be a big deal. Perhaps he still is for your eccentric uncle who refuses to give up his landline.
Television. Film. Stand-up. Game show host. Savior of the Oscars. His accomplishments are Legion.
But you can Google all that if you want. I happened to see him on a talk show recently, and it dawned on me how long it had been since I’d seen the guy. He was delightful, of course. But it crossed my mind that younger audiences today might not even know who they’re looking at.
This kindly old man, who looks like that same eccentric uncle in the midst of a mild allergic reaction, was once a pretty big deal.
Pictured: Not Mel Brooks.
This is what made me revisit City Slickers, a highlight of Crystal’s career that’s sadly left behind little cultural footprint. Upon re-watch, I see that this is because it’s different enough from the way movies are made today that it’s practically a period piece (although there is a pretty relatable cell phone joke!).
And speaking of period pieces, City Slickers marked a cultural high point for Jack Palance, a two-time Academy Award nominee from the 1950s who was enjoying his own victory lap in the 1990s.
City Slickers was a late-century coming-of-age fever dream for men of a certain age who were beginning to question a lifelong obsession with the attainment of cultural affluence. But it was less an indictment of the previous decade’s perceived excess than it was an exercise in the generational nostalgia being experienced by Baby Boomers at the time.
It was a story about men who longed for a better time. A simpler way of life.
Put a pin in that.
Phil (Danial Stern) manages his father-in-law’s supermarket. He’s married to a deafening woman whose needs know no end, not unlike her giant shoulder pads and supernova bangs. Ed (Bruno Kirby) is a self-made man, the successful proprietor of a sporting goods store who has successfully pursued, wooed, and married a much younger woman.
And Mitch (Crystal) is an advertising executive for a local radio station. He makes enough money to sustain a wife, two kids, and a stylish apartment. They are lifelong friends who’ve ridden the economic success of the 80s to the point where they have enough time and wealth to take yearly destination vacations together.
But Mitch is bored.
He expected the Pursuit of Happiness to be its own reward, and he openly complains to his bewildered wife about his unfulfillment. Ed likes the idea of having a young wife, but not so much the idea of the children she wants. Phil lacks the courage to stand up to his domineering wife and father-in-law, which makes them despise him.
He compounds this by sowing his wild oats with a teenage coworker.
So yeah, these deeply despondent dopes have brought it all on themselves. They decide to address their problems at home by taking one last expensive mega-trip together. They’re going to be cowboys, on an actual cattle drive. They arrive at a ranch in Mexico along with a handful of other tourists, there to live their own illusions.
But their most significant new acquaintance is Curly (Palance), the ranch’s inflexible Trail Boss. Curly is perpetually covered in dust, is good with a knife, eats bacon with every meal, and has no time for young folk and their sexual tomfoolery.
Nonetheless Curly and Mitch develop an affinity. The old man listens with muted delight as Mitch bemoans his extensive list of First World problems. Mitch, meanwhile, marvels at the old cowboy’s implacable grit and no-nonsense worldview.
One cigarette, every hour, on the hour. That’s my secret.
Curly suggests that life’s meaning doesn’t come simply through the act of living; it must be imbued by the owner. This advice comes in handy when through an unfortunate series of events, the tourists and cattle become separated from the cowboys and must work together in order to save the herd and return home safely.
Of course, Mitch and his friends are assholes. That’s because Mitch is an asshole, and the entire story is told from his perspective. Ed and Phil are just alternate versions of their friend, there to provide flavor to the backdrop that is their shared childhood. The B-story of this narrative is Mitch and Co.’s generational fascination with the American Cowboy.
It’s a cultural archetype they see as the epitome of freedom and self-determination.
But it isn’t.
I told you we’d come back to this.
Being a cowboy isn’t the life of a courageous wanderer who slings his guns into evil and his heart toward the ladies. It’s a tough and dirty job that becomes as mundane as any other the longer you do it.
Feel free to dislike Mitch and the Gang a little bit, at first. They’re out-of-touch clowns who’ve dragged themselves to the edge of America to fantasize about doing someone else’s boring job. But their interplay over the course of the film reveals a refreshing degree of self-awareness.
Once they’re away from the things that vex them, our guys turn out to be more than the one-note guys we met going in.
It’s a credit to Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, who are not a folk guitar duo but the screenwriters who won an Oscar for Splash (1981) but not for this. And it’s a credit to some genuinely good performances across the board. Ron Underwood accomplished much the same with Tremors (1990), his first directorial effort.
Not so much with Pluto Nash (2002).
The rare poster that perfectly captures the experience of
watching enduring the movie.
This attention to detail makes the back half of the film feel meaningful, and in a largely fun and engaging way. It doesn’t land until long after you think you’ve made up your mind, but it’s possible that our level of self-worth sometimes depends on whether our prevailing individual conditions appear to be expanding or contracting.
And while Palance somewhat steals the show, it’s Crystal’s performance that largely anchors the film. His cynical, observational schtick rubs some people the wrong way. But he’s always excelled at straddling the line between obnoxious and innocuous.
He’s a convivial goof whose strength is applying that silliness to serious topics.
The sentimental part of this is that City Slickers is a product of its time; a film that despite its genial nature probably wouldn’t fly today. At least, not in the same form. It’s a blokeish but satisfying story that nonetheless leaves you with reservations about whose side you should have been on.
This is a light-hearted bro-comedy made for the “Color Me Badd” era. Those of you who channel your entertainment through a solar-powered Bechdel Detector will most likely be disappointed. But there’s a message of gratitude present here that, despite the focused presentation, still holds water.
Consider taking time to appreciate what you have, because if you didn’t have that, you’d probably miss it.
As your Uncle. He’ll confirm. And from recent experience, I can promise you it’s not a lie.
I saw City Slickers on Netflix. So can you.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."