June 7, 1991. Despite the notable release of another odd Spike Lee movie, this week was won by more middle-of-the-road culture. It was the week that the original run of Twin Peaks ended. The #1 and #2 songs on the Billboard charts were “More Than Words” by Extreme and “I Wanna Sex U Up” by Color Me Badd. And the #1 movie was a nice normal comedy about wisecracking Billy Crystal birthing a cow to cope with the boredom of middle aged, middle class existence.
Like JUNGLE FEVER, CITY SLICKERS is about some lives upended and rearranged after a married man has an affair with a subordinate at his workplace. In this case the dude is Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern, C.H.U.D., FRANKENWEENIE), a wet blanket grocery store manager who is very unhappily married to a mean bully (Karla Tamburrelli, “Stewardess [Northeast Plane],” DIE HARD 2) until panicked young clerk Nancy (Yeardley Smith, then in her third season as the voice of Lisa Simpson) finds him outside of work to tell him she thinks she’s pregnant.
“Why is she telling you this?”
The scene goes down at the 39th birthday party of Mitch Robbins (43 year old Billy Crystal, ANIMALYMPICS) and inspires Phil to unleash twelve years of suppressed fury at his wife in front of the Robbins family and all their friends. If this was reality he’d for sure be the bad guy here, but we’ve already been primed to hate how this horrible wife talks to him and feel victory in him telling her off.
Of course the central character is Mitch, who is unhappy with his life for reasons that have nothing to do with his wife Barbara (Patricia Wettig, St. Elsewhere, Thirtysomething), who he would never cheat on. Examples of his indignities include his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, BRENDA STARR) criticizing his work and his son Danny (helium-voiced little Jake Gyllenhaal in his first acting role) being for some reason hugely ashamed of him and trying to lie about his job at career day. When Mitch explains that he actually works at WBLM radio some little shit in the class lets out a loud groan of disappointment. (What kind of a shitty-ass radio station is this that these kids find it so offensive?) Mitch’s failed presentation is preceded by hyperbole from construction worker Robert Costanzo (DIE HARD 2), part of a theme that Mitch feels inferior for not building anything, and/or for not doing so-called man’s work. Rugged work. Callused hand work. Cowboy type stuff.
It’s Barbara who buys the “men can’t stop themselves from fucking somebody else” theory, arguing that Mitch will find himself in his buddy’s place if he stays this unhappy, even though that doesn’t seem to fit his personality or values. It sounds better when she rephrases her request as “go and find your smile.”
Fortunately his other best friend Ed (Bruno Kirby, THE GODFATHER PART II, WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM) is always planning thrill-seeking buddy trips that Barbara has characterized as “desperate attempt[s] to cling to youth,” and he’s already bought them tickets for a thing where you pay money to have an adventure driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. “It’s the newest thing!” raves Phil. “People do this! It’s great!”
(This is also how they get most of the people who work in Amazon warehouses.)
So they go on the trip and meet ranch owners Clay (Noble Willingham, HIT!, BLIND FURY) and Millie (Molly McClure, ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS) as well as their fellow tourists: ice cream entrepreneurs Barry (Josh Mostel, FIGHTING BACK) and Ira (David Paymer, NO HOLDS BARRED) seem to be a fictionalized non-hippie version of Ben & Jerry; Ben (Bill Henderson, TROUBLE MAN, FLETCH) and Steve (Phill Lewis, HEATHERS) are father and son dentists; and Bonnie (Helen SUPERGIRL Slater, who does not share any scenes with her LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN co-star Yeardley) is, as Wikipedia puts it, “a young beauty with a recent romantic break-up.” The dudes all immediately pay attention to her and she finds a connection with Mitch since he’s the main character, but he awkwardly/presumptuosly blurts out that he’s married. Ed later makes fun of him for it, but Bonnie is not really given an opportunity for her own response. As you might guess, the movie seems to imply that she will fall for conveniently single Phil, but luckily doesn’t waste much time on that.
Obviously they escape their dull lives into a different world that’s kind of like a western, so fortunately this ranch (through lack of accountability, I think, not as an intentional service for guests) employs some rapey fuckos to be the villains. Jeff (Kyle Secor, Homicide: Life On the Street) and T.R. (Dean Hallo) corner Bonnie while she’s practicing lasso techniques and won’t let her leave. (What are they planning on doing? Is this a BILLY JACK movie?) Mitch does the right thing and stands up to them, telling them that “this isn’t exactly ‘90s behavior,” knowing they may beat his ass… but a heroic silhouette of machismo rides in on horseback to threaten the attackers, throw a knife near their dicks, etc. Mitch thinks it’s the manliest shit he’s ever seen in his life, he’s in straight up awe of this guy Curly (Jack Palance, BATMAN).
But he also thinks Curly is scary and jokes about him being a psycho. This is far from the first movie where someone’s talking shit and realizes that the person is standing right behind them, but could it be the first where he notices everyone’s silence and says, “He’s behind me, isn’t he?” Probly not, but I couldn’t find an earlier example.
Curly points out that Mitch always makes wiseass comments about him, and Mitch admits he’s that way for everybody. They end up having a nice talk where Curly waxes poetic about his cowboy lifestyle and that “We’re a dyin’ breed.” This romanticized manly lifestyle that Mitch feels he’s lacking isn’t even a thing anymore, it seems. A major turning point is when Curly makes Mitch reach into a cow to pull out a calf – a horrifyingly realistic effect with a really funny gag about him pointing his finger while covered in slime – but the scene is played for sweetness, not gross out humor, and he ends up very attached to the calf (who he names Norman).
Just as suddenly as Curly is Mitch’s personal guru, he turns up dead of natural causes, and they feel authorized to just bury him there in the desert. To make this go over better, one of the ranch employees, Cookie (Tracy Walter, also BATMAN) says it’s what he would’ve wanted. But later we find out Cookie is a total nut who drives the wagon off a cliff and breaks both of his legs, so I’m not sure he’s the one to listen to.
Once Curly is gone, T.R. and Jeff become bullies again, it turns into a fight and Phil puts a gun to one of their heads and comes very close to pulling the trigger. Almost turned into a very different movie there! Instead the jerks abandon them and the on-their-own tourists decide to cowboy up and drive the herd to Colorado themselves before an impending storm. What’s kind of interesting is that it turns into a serious adventure movie for the last act, with some harrowing footage of the herd and flooding.
This is also about Mitch, Phil and Ed bonding, and there’s a big emotional scene where Ed reveals how damaged he is by his dad cheating on his mom. I didn’t really understand why he kept trying to get Mitch to check out other women and stuff, while leaving Phil alone about his infidelity, but maybe a less obvious psychological profile is more authentic. Bonnie teases them a little about talking about baseball all the time, which indeed they do, including nostalgia about stadiums, “Mickey,” “Henry Aaron,” etc. It made me think jesus, I hope I’m not that tiresome talking about movies.
There are some legitimate chuckles. When Ed tries to imitate cries from a John Wayne movie Clay says very sincerely, “That’s a good yahoo, son.” Phil introduces himself by saying “I committed adultery.” There’s plenty of cornier stuff, like Mitch not understanding that his portable coffee grinder caused a stampede. And there’s mild homophobia when Mitch makes some joke about “sashaying” to avoid the draft. Another dated joke involves how confusing it was to make a VCR successfully record one channel while you were watching another channel, which I had no choice but to nod my head to.
When they first meet Ben and Steve, who are Black, Steve takes a comment as being racial, and his dad scolds him for it. Not only does this never come up again, but the two of them get sidelined when they volunteer for the task of bringing injured Cookie to safety, i.e. leaving the movie until the end. I’m not sure why they brought up racial tension if they weren’t going to do anything with it.
At the end they deliver the herd, and find out they’re going to be sold as meat, and are sad. Mitch says, “Those cows trusted us!” Again, though, this is played for genuine emotion and not a cheap laugh, which I can respect.
CITY SLICKERS was well reviewed, and became a massive hit (#5 at the box office for all of ’91). It’s not really my type of movie, but it’s appealing enough and well made, even shot by Dean Semler (ROAD WARRIOR, RAZORBACK, DANCES WITH WOLVES), so the western vistas look really good, and the score by Marc Shaiman (MISERY) is very MAGNIFICENT SEVEN-ish. The character of Curly is lovable in sort of a Mr. Miyagi type of way, and just like Pat Morita in that role, Palance received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. And he won! He famously did one-armed pushups on stage while accepting, to show how manly he still was in his advanced age.
Palance almost couldn’t do the role because of scheduling issues, so they went to Charles Bronson, who didn’t like that the character died. But imagine a world where Charles Bronson got an Oscar for CITY SLICKERS and was the star of THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD. Could’ve happened.
As you know, the 1994 sequel brings back Palance to play the twin brother of Curly, an homage to A BETTER TOMORROW 2. Unfortunately it’s not a role reversal thing where he’s a cowboy who comes into town to visit Mitch and friends and it’s kind of a DEATH WISH version of New York City so they get killed and he has to figure out on his own how to catch a subway back to his hotel. Wouldn’t have worked if it was Bronson but since it was Palance that’s obviously what they should’ve done and it’s shameful that they made some bullshit about hidden treasure instead. Cowards.
Stern was also a late addition, replacing Rick Moranis. So go back in time, step on a few butterflies, we could maybe have a Charles Bronson/Rick Moranis team up. If the Timecops don’t stop us.
The script is by the team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, prolific ‘70s sitcom writers (The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley) who had already written NIGHT SHIFT, SPLASH, SPIES LIKE US, GUNG HO, THE MONEY PIT, VIBES and PARENTHOOD. They’ve worked with Ron Howard and Billy Crystal multiple times, so they’re legends of this type of not-bad normal people entertainment.
But it’s only the second movie for director Ron Underwood, his first of course being TREMORS. He did not return for the CITY SLICKERS sequel, instead following with the less successful HEART AND SOULS, SPEECHLESS, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and then the notorious flop THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH. It goes without saying that he’s now a prolific TV director.
They mention RED RIVER and DELIVERANCE, sing the theme songs for Rawhide and Bonanza, also “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” and Crystal makes jokes about the moonwalk (when his horse backs up) and Bob Vila/This Old House. There’s a very forced reference where he says, “Norman, what are ya, Gene Kelly? Let’s go,” because it’s raining. You see because SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN also has rain during part of it. I feel like he could’ve done better than that, though not required in this type of “wiseass guy says wiseass stuff for a while then it turns kinda sweet for a minute and you go ‘awwww’ and then he says a wiseass thing again” type of role.
Phill Lewis (Steve) was later the wacky “Tee Vee” in ACES: IRON EAGLE III and then became best known for the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, which also led to directing for TV. Danielle Harris (Classroom student) went on to star in most horror movies that exist. Jake Gyllenhaal (Danny) starred in PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME.