Quick, name the last great comedy that made you laugh and cry.
Not easy, is it?
Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy “City Slickers [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” did just that. The film, enjoying a robust Blu-ray release from Shout Factory, returns to shame modern comedies in more ways than one.
The film captures the male psyche without denying masculine traits. Social Justice types might dub that, “problematic.” It’s actually both refreshing and natural … and M.I.A. in some modern films.
Crystal stars as Mitch, a 39-year-old singing the “Middle Age Blues.” He hates his job, his marriage is in a rut and even his two best chums can’t cheer him up. His doting wife (Patricia Wettig, enlivening a small part) pushes him to take his friends’ invitation to go on a cattle drive.
It’s a tourist gimmick, of course. Think your average dude ranch, but on steroids. That’s true, right up until the point where reality forces them to be real cowboys.
FAST FACT: “City Slickers” earned $124 million at the U.S. box office in 1991. The 1994 sequel, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” drew a meager $43 million.
Crystal piles on the shtick as expected. He also brings something somber to the story. His corny cracks are a defense against life’s ugly truths. Or, as Mitch puts it in one of the most searing lines you’ll hear in a comedy:
“Have you ever had that feeling that this is the best I’m ever gonna do, this is the best I’m ever gonna feel… and it ain’t that great?”
His friends aren’t much better. Bruno Kirby’s Ed is a grown man with nagging commitment issues. Poor Phil (Daniel Stern) is trapped, literally and figuratively, in a nightmarish marriage where he answers to his father-in-law five days a week.
Call them First World Problems, but they’re real and hard to dismiss. Together, the trio bond and bicker, but more importantly stand tall when their friends need them most. This isn’t a Dwayne Johnson-style vehicle. These city slickers are out of shape and scared of their own shadows.
They won’t be denied a chance to reclaim their manhood.
It’s a shame Helen Slater doesn’t get to be a part of it. She’s cast as “the distractingly beautiful” woman on the cattle drive, and that’s more or less her character. A modern retelling would boost her character considerably. It also might diminish the hero’s journey at the heart of the tale.
The comedy team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, a giant duo from that era, keeps a tender balance between hokey laughs and tear-jerker asides. There’s enough yuks to placate most viewers, with a few belly laughs in between.
And then there’s Curly.
Jack Palance’s character could scare a snake out of its skin. His grizzled cowpoke shapes the film’s essential second act, bringing decades of malevolence to every squint.
And all Curly does is squint … when he’s not sharpening his Crocodile Dundee-sized knife.
The film’s best scenes find Crystal and Palance getting to know each other. It’s awkward at best, but revealing in sly measures. They couldn’t be more different. Picture a humming bird and a bald eagle trying to fly in tandem. There’s still something to learn from each player, a notion the screenplay gently accepts.
The film ends on a cheery note, but the harsh realities facing these friends never fully recede.
The “City Slickers [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” edition, featuring a new 4K scan, includes a 30-minute peek at the film’s creation. “Back in the Saddle” features the standard Hollywood back-slapping, but Crystal and co. offer revelations beyond which actor proved a natural astride a horse.
Here’s the full breakdown of the Blu-ray edition’s bonus features:
Audio Commentary By Director Ron Underwood And Stars Billy Crystal And Daniel Stern
- “Back In The Saddle: City Slickers” Revisited
- “Bringing In The Script: Writing City Slickers”
- “A Star Is Born: An Ode To Norman”
- “The Real City Slickers”