City Slickers

City Slickers. Castle Rock Entertainment 1991.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve heard this movie referenced a fair bit, and surprisingly a lot of references to the title of the sequel, “The Legend of Curly’s Gold”, even though it doesn’t seem to have the kind of memetic power that “Electric Boogaloo” does.

But the extent of what filtered through was “Billy Crystal and a friend or two are city folk completely out of their depth in a western.” Daniel Stern is a headliner and how many people now can name what he’s done outside of Home Alone if they even recognize the name at all?

I was imagining something like Wagons East!, but on a cursory overview it looks like this is a modern-day movie; contemporary characters on a modern cattle drive, the closest you can get to dropping folks off the street into the Old West without invoking any time travel. So there’s likely going to be a little less city mouse/country mouse and a little more new school/old school.

I don’t often talk about them anymore, but the original release poster shown here looks incredible. I understand that art like this is expensive and that’s a big part of why they don’t do it like that anymore, this is so much better than the slapped-together photo collage they promote it with now, and it already exists. Why not use it?

After watching the movie:

Mitch, Ed, and Phil frequently go on crazy adventures suggested by Ed, like target skydiving or the running of the bulls. Mitch is married with two kids, embarrassed to work as an ad sales manager at a radio station. Ed, after years of dating a parade of gorgeous women, has finally married a 20-something underwear model. Phil is henpecked by his wife and father in law, whose grocery store he manages, until his marriage explodes with nuclear force at Mitch’s birthday party. Mitch, already a very pessimistic person, feels incredibly trapped in his life as he turns 39, so when his friends tell him his birthday gift is a two-week cattle drive, his wife tells him he should go with them instead of on the trip to his in-laws he promised her, and find his smile. While training with the other guests at the ranch, the guys try to intercede when the ranch hands get drunk and harass the one woman who came on the trip, Bonnie, but don’t have the power to intimidate them. Curly the grizzled old trail boss however, does get the assailants to back down. When Mitch causes a stampede with a battery operated coffee grinder, Curly has him come with him to collect strays while the main group goes on. Curly shares some wisdom about finding the One Thing in his life that gives his life meaning, and instructs Mitch in delivering a calf from a dying cow. Soon after, Curly dies, leaving the group of inexperienced city folk under the leadership of the ranch hands who get abusive when they get drunk, and they just found the cook’s stash.

I was surprised how introspective this movie is. The guys having midlife crises isn’t just a mechanism to get them into the adventure, it’s something they are actively wrestling with while they drive the cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. They seem kind of obsessively focused on sex for settled guys in their late 30s, but I guess Mitch is the only one properly settled, since Phil’s marriage just went down in flames and Ed only just got married a few months ago and is secretly worrying about the kind of commitment that giving his wife children would involve. There’s a lot less “city folk don’t know how to brand a cow” and a lot more “what if this is all my life is ever going to be?”

All three guys find Bonnie attractive, but despite Mitch being ostensibly the most committed to his marriage, the movie gives the most importance to his relationship with Bonnie, and I didn’t care for that. They’re all gentlemen to her face, but they talk indecently about her in private. At least Mitch didn’t end up with her, which I was earnestly concerned about for a moment.

In the end the owner of the ranch tells them that meat prices are so high he can’t afford not to sell the cattle they drove to a meat packer, and the guys are heartbroken. This reaction was a bit puzzling for me. Even if they expected the cattle to continue to be shuttled back and forth between ranches for the next several seasons, I didn’t think they were that attached to the herd as a whole. Even though they refused to abandon the cattle where they wouldn’t survive and instead do the hard thing and finish the job, I don’t really see that as being “for nothing” because the cows were destined to be slaughtered. The meat industry has a lot to answer for, but I think it’s still much more humane than leaving them in the wilderness to starve. Mostly I just never saw them as being that emotionally attached to the herd as a whole, except for Norman the calf, and they made sure he was taken care of.

I put off this movie for a long time because I expected a silly little movie, but it’s a lot deeper than it gets credit for. Clearly it was written by people familiar with wrestling with midlife crises, and that makes it to the screen. I regret sleeping on this movie, but it probably wouldn’t have been as relevant to me sooner, as I’m starting to settle down and realizing I’m mostly okay with it. In some ways I think the guys are less mature than me still half a decade their junior, but that’s one of the ways that men have a safe outlet to express their friendship, even if it’s not mine. Everything around that was surprisingly beautiful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.