New Jersey guys go west and find laughs


June 07, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'City Slickers'

Starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance.

Directed by Ron Underwood.

Released by Columbia/Castle Rock.

Rated PG-13.


In "City Slickers," the whiny, sensitive boys from the Levi's Docker ads meet the Marlboro man. Talk about a commercial movie!

As synthetic as this sounds, it's all the more synthetic on the screen -- and it's also very, very funny.

Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a New York advertising salesman who, at 39, has begun to slip into the coma known as middle age. He misses a life he never had and wants a life that doesn't exist. If he were younger, the answer would be a toga party; but he's too old for toga parties, so his friends take him on a cattle drive.

"In trucks?" he asks.

L No, Mitch. On horsies. You get to be a cowboy for two weeks.

That's the gimmick there in a log line: Jersey boys on horseback. Minnows out of water in the great American West. "Sensitive" guys grappling with their feelings while riding around one of the wind-ravaged, fissure-textured gigantic icons of the Western landscape. No, not Monument Valley: Jack Palance.

Palance, as the head wrangler Curly, probably hasn't had such a good part since "Shane." Crystal calls him a "saddle bag with eyes," an inspired line. To me he looks like 6 feet 4 of walking, spitting, snarling beef jerky; he's "The Thing" in chaps. One of those laconic Hemingway types who's never heard of Hemingway, he is most alive in action and attitude; sit him down and talk to him, and he becomes as banal as a cowboy song and when the movie tries this, it too giddiyaps into sentimental banality.

And when the guys do "feelings," guess what piles up. A scene where Mitch and his two pals -- played by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern -- talk about the best days of their lives and the worst is so touchy-feely with slacks-ad angst and buddymush it made me )) yearn for Clint Eastwood's squint-eyed minimalism and gunplay.

Moreover, the plot's mechanics are as creaky as ungreased wheels. The script, adazzle with nifty one-liners by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, is pretty pitiful as it clumps to a way in which our three amigos must bring in the herd alone, just like Monty Clift did in "Red River." You hear melodramatic chains clunking squalidly when someone abruptly dies and two others abruptly disappear.

But . . . oh, so funny. Crystal is such an inventive elf and he walks the line between moroseness and sarcasm, crackling with hilarity. It's as if he has a funny-chromosome, neither an X nor a Y but a HA. The shtick is subtle: Mitch has Bob Hope's zingy dart-thrower's accuracy with a one-liner, but a much softer, new age personality; his barbs come out of his melancholia and are always a surprise, especially as delivered with a slight throwaway twist. He's Woody Allen before he published in the New Yorker.

And also, the movie has a sweet reverence for the dead old form of the Western. In many ways, it's about men who fell in love with the West they saw on TV when they were growing up in the '50s. Director Ron Underwood skillfully brings this out by subtly paying homage to great Western camera movements. The camera sweeps up to discover a vivid landscape; or it plunges along parallel to a line of plunging horsemen to capture their pleasure of their freedom.

Underwood never overplays his hand, but he makes it clear that despite its gimmick, the movie is fundamentally an observation of the rite of the western, as practiced by Ford and Boetticher and Young and Mann and Leone -- the journey to a kind of manhood. It's a laugh-a-minute hellzapoppin' yuckfest, but in the end it's also a celebration of true grit.

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