By John H. Foote

(***)

Billy Crystal was never much of an actor. But as Mitch in City Slickers (1991), the sad-eyed father and husband, he was truly brilliant. When his wife tells him to go on a cattle drive with his buddies, that she does not want him in Florida with her, he is stunned. She lovingly tells him, “Go find your smile.” He looks at her with genuine sadness and asks, “What if I can’t?” It is the finest, most singular truthful moment Crystal has ever had onscreen. City Slickers was a huge success in the summer of 1991, a beautiful comedy about three lifelong friends who organize annual adventure vacations – skydiving, scuba diving, running with the bulls in Spain.

At his 39th birthday party, Ed (Bruno Kirby) and Phil (Daniel Stern) surprise Mitch with a two-week cattle drive, which starts in New Mexico on a working cattle ranch and will end in Colorado. Grueling, back-breaking work greets them under big blue skies and oppressive heat. Their bodies ache with the thumping of riding on horseback, they ice their groins, outfit themselves in cowboy gear, meet the other guests and prepare to hit the trail. They encounter the two drunk and surly ranch hands who will ride with them, but also Curly (Jack Palance), the tough as nails trail boss who has lived his entire life by a code of the Old West. With his leathery face, steely eyes and powerful build, he looks like the American cowboy incarnate, and though he and Mitch get off to a rocky start, they become friends.

Jack Palance and Billy Crystal.

Unfortunately for the friends and the viewers, Curly doesn’t last long, dying of a heart attack on the trail. When the two drunken ranch hands run off, the inexperienced trio are left to bring in the herd the rest of the way. However, they were with Curly long enough to learn a few things, and they trust each other. So, they get the job done.

And Mitch finds his smile.

He also finds Norman, a beautiful calf he births when the mother has trouble, and together with Curly he pulls the struggling calf out of the mother. Adopting the calf as his own, he soon has a pet that will grow into a very large beast.

Each of the cast has a moment to shine, Stern telling Mitch his entire life is a wreck, with Mitch offering he has a chance for a do-over. Kirby, who portrayed a very young Clemenza in The Godfather Part II (1974), has a great scene where he plans to throw his father out of the house and take care of his mother and sister. For him, it is a terrible but revealing moment and the actor plays it beautifully.

Palance is terrific as Curly, though has far too little screen time for my liking. I would have liked to see him kick the asses of the ranch hands or share his wisdom to the guys on their journey. That said, his scenes with Mitch have a lovely chemistry, very real, believable, tinged with a kindness we do not expect from him. Their scene around the campfire where Mitch plays harmonica and Curly sings must be seen to be believed. Palance would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in what was clearly a sentimental award to honour a long-standing veteran in movies. Nominated years before as the villain-in-black Wilson in Shane (1953), in many ways his Curly was an homage to that character, though Curly had a heart. Upon accepting the award, he repeated his infamous line (this time referring to Crystal), “I crap bigger than him.”

The winsome actress Helen Slater, who became famous as Supergirl (1984), was cast in the film as the harassed Bonnie. She has a lovely presence in the film, but not much of a role. Sharp-eyed viewers will see a nine-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal as Crystal’s son.

The rugged locations reminded audiences of the old west from the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford, and the score is big and sweeping like the skies.

City Slickers was a solid box office hit, and Crystal enjoyed a huge career boost with the film, but never managed to capitalize on it. A sequel came a few years later with Palance back as Curly’s twin brother and Kirby, disgruntled with the script, replaced by Mitch’s dumbass brother, portrayed by Jon Lovitz.

No one will ever mistake City Slickers for art, but it is an entertaining, fun film. Whenever I come across it while channel hopping, I grab the Blu Ray and pop it in to see it from the beginning.

Love it.

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