The premise of City Slickers instantly set off my high-concept alarm (which is to say, the movie sounded like a one-joke bore). Three New York pals, played by Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby, take a two-week vacation at a Southwestern dude ranch, where they ride horses, sing campfire ditties under the desert moon, and then join a cattle drive, herding 200 steer from New Mexico to Colorado. I envisioned a slapstick parade of cowboy cliches, with the dweeb heroes falling off their horses and rubbing their butts in pain. And, yes, there’s a little of that. But City Slickers turns out to be a delightful surprise. Written by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash) and directed by Ron Underwood (Tremors), it’s the first comedy this year with real joy in it, and real humanity, too. It’s also the first movie ever to do the talented Billy Crystal justice (When Harry Met Sally…was just Styrofoam Woody Allen). He may never make it as a classic leading man, but in this movie he gets off some of the zestiest one-liners since Bob Hope took the road to Rio.
Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a radio ad salesman with a nice wife (Patricia Wettig) and two nice kids. Mitch is utterly depressed because he’s approaching 40. Speaking to his son’s grade-school class, he launches into a mournfully hilarious monologue about what happens to people as they enter each new decade of life — a kind of smart-ass ”Seven Ages of Man” speech. What’s great about this scene is that it’s so heartfelt. Crystal, who conceived the film and served as its executive producer, seems to be reinventing the mid-life-crisis movie. It’s not that Mitch suddenly wants to chase 19-year-olds. It’s that he has grown up in such a youth-fixated culture that getting old doesn’t make sense to him.
Trying to get his ”smile” back, he signs up for a Western adventure. For Mitch, it’s a kind of live-action Disneyland ride — a sun-spangled dream of returning to childhood. Joining him are his two lifelong buddies: Phil (Stern), an excrutiatingly timid grocery-store clerk, and Ed (Kirby), a womanizer who has just married a fashion model (though he still seems as horny as ever). The three show up at Stone Canyon Ranch, where they’re thrown together with a dozen other cowboy wannabes, a couple of contemptuous ranch hands, and the mythical trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance) — a genuine out-of-the-past cowboy who’s so tough he lights matches on his cheek.
At the ranch, Mitch stares at the tall, gawky Phil, now clad from head to toe in buckskin, and quips, ”You look like one of the Village People.” Right from the start, City Slickers has a teasing self-consciousness. The cleverest thing about the movie is that it doesn’t simply invite us to laugh at the silliness of its characters. They know how ridiculous they look too. For these three hapless baby boomers, becoming cowboys is a reverie of soulful macho. Yet they’re doing it in such a contrived, packaged way, going on a cattle drive the way one might sign up for Club Med, that they can never quite forget what a folly they’re engaged in. The other cattle-drive participants are all middle-class urban types, including a token cowgirl (Helen Slater) and a geeky pair of gourmet-ice cream entrepreneurs (played by David Paymer and the scene- stealing Josh Mostel) who carry their cellular phones into the wilderness. As City Slickers goes on, though, the movie slyly undercuts its own joke. The horseback journey to Colorado becomes a surreal odyssey of yuppie escapism, a case of three overly civilized men leaping into the middle of their own pop fantasy.
The movie sees both the absurdity and the flaky glory of their crusade. Many of the giddiest jokes are cynical deflations of the Western mystique. When one of the real cowhands suddenly dies, Phil delivers the nonchalant eulogy: ”The man ate bacon at every meal. You just don’t do that.” At one point, Mitch and Phil are framed in a classic Hollywood horseback-riding shot — and then we cut to a close-up, and Mitch is busy explaining that, yes, there really is a way to set your VCR so you can watch one show while recording another. The movie understands that these three can never really leave the city. Yet their desperation to go native is palpable. Beneath his wisecracking bluster, Mitch is in awe of Curly, who swaggers around like a demonic John Wayne. Palance doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he’s an authentically romantic presence. He’s also sending up the hard-boiled cowboy hero-without ever quite letting you see him do it. (Curly’s anecdote about the one great love of his life is a hilarious, cornball crock.) It’s through Palance that City Slickers gets us to share Mitch’s sentimental yearning to be a real hero — and in doing so, it becomes unexpectedly touching. The film reveals how the mythical American West, that hokiest of pop-culture landscapes, can still exert a primal appeal.
Crystal’s ordinariness — his utter lack of glamour — really works for him here. He’s far more pleasureful to watch in this sort of dramatic-comedy role than, say, Robin Williams, because his comfy, urban-shlemiel personality helps ground the jokes. And this is the first chance Daniel Stern has had in quite a while to show what an inspired comic he is. He’s wonderfully funny as the sad-sack Phil, who turns his fear and loathing into a running joke. City Slickers is sometimes a little too earnest. I wish Mitch didn’t find redemption by assisting — live, on camera — in the birth of a calf. And the male bonding gets a bit sticky. Then again, the movie wouldn’t have as much resonance without it. The best scenes are those in which the filmmakers strike a keen balance between satire and sincerity, as when the three men do an ecstatic rendition of the Bonanza theme while galloping, in ironic triumph, across the actual Ponderosa. City Slickers is really about how the West can never be more than a dream to contemporary urban Americans. With high comic style, it shows us what a lovely dream that is. A-