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Historical Circuit: ‘City Slickers’ Finds Comedy Gold

ACCA 1991: Over 25 years old, it’s interesting to look at how the studio comedy has changed. Now we have raunchy comedies and action comedies, neither necessarily requiring a star to anchor them. “City Slickers” was more of its time, essentially banking on star Billy Crystal to draw audiences in. It opened in 1991 and was the fifth highest grossing film of the year. Making about $124 million, adjusted for inflation, it would have made around $226 million if it had been a 2018 release. That’s blockbuster status. Compare that to some of the popular comedies of late, which struggle to make that much. This just goes to show how big “City Slickers” was upon release. It was a pop culture phenomenon.

“City Slickers” seems today like a pretty safe comedy. Nothing about it is particularly noteworthy. It’s funny, likable, and an easy watch. But a blockbuster? That’s not what you’d expect out of it, had it opened today. Even more surprisingly, it wound up an awards player, winning Jack Palance the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. An inferior sequel was spawned, though the success of this one was not duplicated.

Long time friends Mitch Robbins (Crystal), Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern), and Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby) take a trip each year. When we meet them, they’re running with the bulls, something Ed suggested. Mitch and Phil don’t love these trips, but they’re so unhappy with their lives, it’s at least a distraction. Then, for Mitch’s upcoming 40th birthday, Ed and Phil band together to plan something big. This year, they’ll be going on a cattle drive at an authentic ranch in the Southwest.

Almost immediately, they stick out like sore thumbs, especially Mitch with his New York accent and Mets cap. He especially seems to incite the ire of old ranch hand Curly (Palance). The group, which also includes ice cream makers Barry Shalowitz (Josh Mostel) and Ira Shalowitz (David Paymer), as well as the beautiful Bonnie Rayburn (Helen Slater), gets set to head out, with Mitch just as down in the dumps as before.

Out on the cattle drive, a mishap leads Mitch to have to go on a detour with Curly, where the two bond. This proves important once a further problem essentially strands the group in the middle of the adventure. Now seeing value in his life, Mitch and company opt to complete the cattle drive, against all odds. Adventure and comedy ensue.

Ostensibly a Billy Crystal star vehicle, this wound up also being a shining moment for Jack Palance. Crystal is doing his normal thing, which you either like or don’t like. Here, he’s also a fish out of water, which leads to a few funny moments, especially at first. As for Palance, he ended up winning the Oscar for this, and it’s hard to see why. He’s good in the film, for sure, but nothing about it screams award worthy. It may be telling that the sequel, “City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold,” did not end up on any voter’s radar. The initial fun of Crystal and company with Palance just managed to charm them. The Golden Globes unsurprisingly dug it a lot, but that the Academy saw fit to reward Palance is something still interesting to this day.

There are plenty more cast members, in addition to Crystal and Palance, even though they’re the ones you remember. Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern get the most to do besides those top two players, even if they’re forgotten about for a stretch. Then, there’s the aforementioned Josh Mostel, David Paymer, and Helen Slater, who are all charming enough. Also on hand are the likes of Bill Henderson, Phill Lewis, Jeffrey Tambor, Tracey Walter, Patricia Wettig, Noble Willingham, and more.

Director Ron Underwood is basically a traffic director here. He gets the cast in place and lets them do their thing. Luckily, the script by hit comedy writers of the time Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel has more than its share of chuckles. The focus is on Crystal, as the subplots involving his friends really go nowhere. It’s also a little on the long side, with an aversion to ending. With a slightly tighter focus, this could have been even better. Even so, it’s still super easy to just pop on and enjoy.

“City Slickers” is still an amusing comedy. An Oscar winner? Yeah, it sticks out a bit, especially considering some of the other nominees in 1991. Still, any unusual choice by the Academy is one worth celebrating. Too often, it’s cookie cutter nominees and winners. Palance is decidedly not that. He’s not the most memorable part of the film, but he’s a small part of why it succeeds.

Grade: (★★★)


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Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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