Western Wednesday: City Slickers

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” 

— T.K. Whipple (Also quoted in the beginning of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove novel, which is where I first read it.)

Billy Crystal’s character is thirty-nine, an age which seemed like a million years away when I first saw City Slickers twenty-five years ago. Like Logan’s Run, it’s a movie I can better appreciate now that I’ve got some perspective on this thing called age. I’m kind of going through a phase in which I’ve been inexplicably drawn to reading and watching westerns damn near exclusively. I’ve never considered myself much of the camping type, but taking two weeks off to drive cattle sounds a lot more attractive than a trip to Disney World.

I get this movie. I get it because it gets it. What is “it?” I don’t know. I guess it’s rather like Curly’s one thing. Don’t click that link if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

if you think you recognize the kid you’re right, it’s him

Crystal’s best friends, played by Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, have talked the neurotic hero into running with the bulls in Spain. It’s suggested that every year they concoct semi-idiotic vacations and drag their unenthusiastic wives along with varying results. Fast-forward a year later and their latest scheme indulges a western fantasy, in which well-to-do city folk can pay money for the opportunity to become genuine cowpunchers. Crystal is reluctant to go until his wife points out that he’s forgotten how to smile. Even then he goes along cautiously because the stakes have suddenly been raised: he thinks that if he doesn’t remember how to smile in that two-week span, he’s a lost cause.

The biggest fault with City Slickers is it just isn’t all that successful as a comedy other than some obviously improvised Billy Crystal lines. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly deep character story—so much so I found the three main characters to be a lot more three-dimensional than the Oscar-winning portrayals in Terms of Endearment, which I also revisited this week. In that movie, I found the brash ex-astronaut was little more than a brash ex-astronaut while the overcritical mother had surprisingly little range beyond that.

In City Slickers, though, the leading characters are so much more than their summaries. Stern, who often pretends he’s fallen asleep so he doesn’t have to speak to his overbearing wife, has a lot more wants and fears than one would expect from a character who more or less fell into the role of a career grocer. Kirby, who’s an even better actor than Crystal, is much more interesting than the playboy owner of sporting goods shop we’re introduced to—particularly after he reveals why he’s so weird about women. A lot of comedies would have dwelled on his strange job, but this one doesn’t.

some of the best stuff in the movie

Then you have Curly, who’s played by Jack Palance. He’s one of my favorite actors for his uncanny ability to chew the scenery with complete believability (I still think he would have been a better Joker than Jack Nicholson). In lesser comedies, he would have merely parodied his former screen persona for a cheap laugh. Yet City Slickers isn’t content with being routine because he warms up to the lead about halfway through. It’s actually quite refreshing what they do with Palance, despite the fact they completely undo all that hard work in the terrible sequel. (I’m not kidding: in City Slickers 2, it turns out that Curly has a lost twin brother. Zzzzzz.)

So yeah, as a comedy it’s kind of a dud—the knowing music can be as insistent as a bad laugh-track while a lot of the minor characters are stupidly over-the-top, particularly Stern’s wife whose face is often filmed with a bit of a fishbowl lens to exaggerate her supposedly comedic features. But although I’ve seen much funnier comedies than City Slickers, few of them were as good. I feel prepared for thirty-nine.

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