Daniel Stern, Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby in City Slickers (1991)

Cowboy Curly Makes Life Crystal Clear

In most men's lives there comes a time when they realise that from now on in it's going to all be down hill. Yes, we are talking about male mid-life crisis a subject perfect for comedy as men tackle the notion in various ways either accepting the inevitable or trying to recapture their youth. One of the funniest movies to tackle male mid-life crisis is 1991's "City Slickers" which whilst trying to deliver a message that mid life doesn't mean it's down hill from here on in also is hilariously funny and also saw Jack Palance win a long over due Oscar for his supporting performance as the memorable Curly Washburn.

With his 39th birthday just a day away, Mitch (Billy Crystal - When Harry Met Sally), a radio ad salesman, is starting to suffer a mid-life crisis and fears that from now on his life can only go one way - down. But it's not just him as his best friends Phil (Daniel Stern - Home Alone) and Ed (Bruno Kirby - The Freshman) are also suffering the effects of a mid life crisis and so decide that the best thing to do is spend two weeks away together in the wild west driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. Along with other city urbanites they meet Curly (Jack Palance - Young Guns), an authentic Cowboy who teaches them how to become proper cowboys and also a few things about the meaning of life as they drive the cattle across the open country.

Jack Palance as Curly Washburn in City Slickers (1991)

In reality the storyline to "City Slickers" is surprisingly weak and quite predictable. You can guess by the end of the two weeks driving cattle that Mitch and his best pals Phil & Ed will have had a road to Damascus like revelation and realise that just because they are middle aged it doesn't mean that life therefore becomes mundane. The interest in many ways is the various events which happen along the way, the relationships between the cowboys and the city folk, and although obviously manufactured the various sentimental messages, such as Curly's secret to life, which come across during their escapades together.

But the real enjoyment comes from the balance of witty dialogue and slapstick. There is barely a scene where a laugh isn't raised whether by some visual tom foolery such as a coffee grinder causing a cattle stampede or the self defacing humour of Billy Crystal as Mitch. The strange thing is that although the storyline is obviously a vehicle for all the comedy none of it feels out of place or just like a series of set pieces. This is mainly down to that a lot of these scenes end up discussing the three main protagonist's feelings as they look over their lives but also in their inability as cattle ranchers. It works because it stops the comedy being too one sided and allows for the mixture of witty comments and slapstick to feel natural rather than forced.

When it comes to the performances well Billy Crystal leads from the front perfectly with his own type of self depreciating humour and his ability to delivery funny comments with such a straight face making the character of Mitch brilliant for him. Accompanying him you have the down trodden Phil played by Daniel Stern and the womanising Ed played by Bruno Kirby. The casting of Crystal, Stern and Kirby was spot on and each of them bring their own style of humour to their characters making each of them funny but equally realistic as best friends. There is undeniably some form of chemistry between the three of them making the jokes run fast and smooth when they share a movie scene.

But some would say the real star of "City Slickers" is Jack Palance who is not only menacing as Curly the archetypal cowboy, basically playing an amalgamation of characters which he has been playing for years, but also surprisingly funny especially in scenes with Billy Crystal. Whether his performance as Curly really deserved a supporting actor Oscar is debatable, and I like many feel it was more to do with being ignored for years by the Academy, but even so it is a good performance making Curly a very memorable character.

Of course with "City Slickers" now over twenty years old it would be hard to ignore that it does feel a little dated. Most notably the fashions and hair styles certainly date it back to the early 90's but also the humour which is a lot more innocent than you would see in many modern comedies and I honestly can't remember a swear word being uttered. Not that I complain about such things as the innocence of the comedy makes a refreshing change to the over the top humour which hits most modern comedies.

What this all boils down to is that "City Slickers" is one of the movies which manages to deliver a meaningful message whilst plying you with laugh after laugh. It's not overly clever and is a little dated but it is enjoyable and watching the combined talents of Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby as well as Jack Palance makes watching "City Slickers" still a pleasure.