[[ A guest post by film critic and father Christian Toto ]]
This so-called film expert got Family Movie Night wrong. Again.
I thought my boys (ages 7, 9) would love Billy Crystal’s cowboy antics in the 1991 comedy City Slickers, just re-released on Blu-ray. Slapstick comedy is right in their wheelhouse, the broader, the better. Or maybe I was too curious about my own reaction to the movie all these years later, given its take on middle-age malaise.
My sons watched the film’s opening and, after several of my “give it a chance” pleas”, bailed. I kept on watching, however, and what I saw reminded me of the film’s cultural heft.
This wasn’t another comedy with Crystal’s patented Borscht Belt bits. “City Slickers” hones in on what it means to be a man, a father and a husband. Pretty heady stuff for a comedy, no?
Crystal stars as Mitch, an ad executive who, somewhere between his 38th and 39th birthdays, lost his mojo. His friends try lassoing him into a dude ranch trip on steroids. They won’t just ride horses, they tell him. They’ll participate in a bona fide cattle drive.
Mitch’s wife doesn’t just encourage her hubby go on the trip, she insists. Go find your smile, co-star Patricia Wettig says. Or, more precisely, warns him.
Would you want to be married to a sullen Mitch?
You can predict what happens next. It’s standard “fish out of water” comedy complete with an Oscar-winning turn by Jack Palance as the tough dude ranch cowboy Curly. But it’s really what Mitch and his buddies (Bruno Kirby, Daniel Stern) talk about along the way that resonated so much.
Kirby’s Ed has a hard time settling down, even though his new wife is supermodel stunning. That’s never been my problem, though: Personally, I couldn’t wait to get married. Nor could I relate to Stern’s Phil, a henpecked husband who longs for the sweet relief of sleep each day.
The trio’s camaraderie, and Mitch’s frustration and fears that his best days are behind him? Bullseye.
Men nearing the big 4-0 have plenty on their plate. Are they happy with their lives? Have their careers gone the way they wanted? Why doesn’t their hair completely cover their scalp the way it once did?
Masculinity also plays an important role in the film. Mitch and his friends aren’t macho by any modern standard. Are they strong enough to stand up for not just each other but their fellow travelers? Would they put their lives on the line if the situation presented itself?
And what in the world is the “one thing” Curly suggests is the key to life? I still want to know!
The screenplay deftly marries these big questions with enough humor to make the movie memorable. The Mitch-Curly dynamic is gold in and of itself. Crystal delivers the kind of laughs that define his screen persona, but there’s a sadness to his performance all the same. His jokes are an all-too-obvious defense against fears that won’t go away.
“City Slickers” is still a mainstream comedy, and many of the problems sprinkled through the movie find tidy resolutions. Others don’t. Nor do the lingering fears brought up along the trail disappear once the end credits roll.
That mattered most to this viewer.
I clearly picked the wrong movie for my young sons to appreciate. I hope that someday they’ll download the film from a miraculous device that hasn’t been invented yet and appreciate what Dad was trying to show them.
Guest author and Dad Christian Toto is an award-winning film critic who covers entertainment at HollywoodInToto.com