Monday, August 28, 2006

In Memoriam: City Slickers


Dir: Ron Underwood (Tremors; Mighty Joe Young; The Adventures of Pluto Nash; In the Mix)

Bruno Kirby has passed on. While a verteran character actor, it is undeniable he is best known for two roles in mass appeal comedies, When Harry Met Sally and this film. I was reminded that, while everyone saw City Slickers when it came out, I had not revisted the film for many years. What greeted me was an exceptional "feel good" film, intelligent and heart warming that showcases the abilities of actors like Kirby when given the room to act.

City Slickers was a lot more thoughtful that I remembered, and probably more than I could appreciate on first viewing. The emasculation of the Baby Boomers was a big deal back then, often directed in the "Angry White Man" syndrome portrayed in Falling Down. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung the other way toward the feminization of men in the "Metrosexual" movement. City Slickers bears the mark of a generation, raised in the safe envrions of the 50's, reaching mid-life and finding themselves trapped in family and middle management.

That backdrop provides the motivation for a good old-fashioned underdog story, pretty much a sports film forumla transferred to a Western setting. The script is by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, a favorite team of mine responsible as well for A League of Their Own, Gung Ho, Night Shift, and the supremely funny Spies Like Us. City Slickers is their most accessible script, with an emotional range that brings in all kinds of various audiences. The catch phrase humor and one-liners is backed with emotional dialogue that may lack subtlty but undeniably accomplishes its goal. Underwood's incessant orchestral score, swelling on cue when men reveal their feelings to one another, tells us exactly what to fell and on what lines to feel it.

For a Western, the movie does feel strangely claustrophobic, failing to make full use of the vistas of Southern Colorado. The secondary characters accompanying our protagonists on the trail, the dentists, the ice cream moguls, and the lonely woman, are all completely superfluous, especially the young black dentist who teases that race will be an issue and then safely gets ignored for the rest of the film. A cutting room casuality for that story line, I wager.

The film rests entirely on four actors. Jack Palance took home a "lifetime acheivement" Oscar as Curly, a performance I admit didn't strike me as particularaly special after further review. He plays old and grizzled, which he is so it's no big deal. The writing carries the day there, a satisfyingly complex archetype of traditional masculinty. But a bunch of veteran actors could have done it just as well, believe it or not. Billy Crystal, never one of my favorite actors, has perfect comedic timing but little acting chops in my mind. He gets laughs and keeps scenes moving, but never delivers emotional impact.

The stand outs, both in writing and acting, are Daniel Stern and Kirby as Crystal's friends. Each is called on to fully develop a troubled character and work through real personal crises in the course of the film. Each embodies a particular aspect of the male persona, and the actors understand their roles. Stern has real talent, and Kirby plays out of type, supremely confident but with lots of pent up anger.

The script is very good at getting us to empathize with these characters, and then puts a real challenge in front of them. That sort of rooting interest is the bread and butter of the feel good movie, and I must admit that watching City Slickers made me feel good. It is genuinely funny, heartwarming if manipulative, but also intelligent and well thought out. This is the sort of film you watch with the folks on Thanksgiving, a movie that stands near the top of its genre.



Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 8/28/2006 05:08:00 PM that...


The director of this movie has directed some TOTAL garbage. holy crap those are some bad movies.  

Blogger paroske noted on 8/28/2006 05:20:00 PM that...

Yeah I know.

And by Ron's logic, Underwood is a better director than Ingmar Bergman.

Honestly, Ron is really off base on this one.