The 90s On Netflix: City Slickers (1991)
Mark Harrison | On 07, Feb 2020
Director: Ron Underwood
Cast: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, and Helen Slater
Watch City Slickers online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Over time, City Slickers has arguably been best remembered for winning an Academy Award. While, at the time of writing, the notoriously bloated Oscars telecast has gone without a host since 2019, Jack Palance’s Best Supporting Actor win at the very start of the 1993 ceremony gave us an iconic moment, as the 73-year-old actor did one-armed push-ups during his acceptance speech, while his co-star Billy Crystal, on hosting duties, looked on.
While the story of Palance’s win (or The Legend Of Curly’s Gold, as no one is calling it) is a fun one, the film is well worth revisiting too. Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a radio ad-man and father of two, who feels disillusioned with his life and morbid about his future. For his 39th birthday, his lifelong friends Ed (Bruno Kirby) and Phil (Daniel Stern) whisk him away on a two-week cattle drive, during which they and their fellow holidaymakers are tasked with herding some reluctant cows from New Mexico to Colorado.
With a script from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the film isn’t a straight Western spoof, but rather a very funny film about how American masculinity had changed by the time the 1990s rolled around. Taking its lead from films about life on the frontier, (specifically John Wayne movie The Cowboys) the common thread between Westerns and this contemporary mid-life crisis comedy is that not all that’s good is easy.
Beyond that, there’s a refreshing lack of broad strokes that makes the funny stuff funnier and the dramatic parts surprisingly tender. Although the film is incredibly slow to get going, the extended New York first act sets up our three leads and their various insecurities nicely, rather than making them the hooting and hollering man-children you’d expect from a film like this nowadays.
And that’s where Palance comes in. His performance as Curly is equal parts wise and unflappable, as the taciturn trail boss finds himself corralling tourists as well as cows. Your mileage may vary on whether his Oscar win was more of a career recognition gong, but he’s invaluable as the film’s bellwether, to mix our livestock metaphors.
He makes a tremendous straight man to Crystal’s wise-cracking milquetoast. This film came along well before improvisation and line-o-ramas became the default in Hollywood comedies, but it feels as though much of the film is on pace with Crystal’s quick comedic gallop and Palance balances it with gravitas.
Like a lot of modern comedies, it could comfortably lose 20 minutes of running time, ideally from the bloated beginning, but there’s no faulting director Ron Underwood’s handling of the stakes as the film goes on, keeping things funny without getting silly. On the other hand, although it’s a blokey film by design, the script’s supposedly reconstructed view of masculinity might be easier to credit some 30 years later if it gave Helen Slater’s character any purpose other than being objectified, whether by our heroes or the token black-hats who antagonise them.
As well as earning Palance an Oscar, the film proved to be an unexpected hit, eventually landing just inside the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 1991. We’ll say nothing of the severely underpowered 1994 sequel, whose title rightly became a byword for money-grabbing follow-ups, except that it goes to show just how this kind of blend of contemporary comedy and vintage Western tropes could go badly wrong.
Where City Slickers could have gone way over-the-top with its slapstick and its sentimentality, it stands up both as a comedy and as a Western. It’s no one’s idea of a typical awards season favourite, but it’s got a hard-wearing, measured sensibility that largely stands up to the test of time. In short, it’s the Jack Palance of comedy Westerns.
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“Yabba dabba do!”
City Slickers is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.