'City Slickers' search for treasure, but they find only a lame plot

June 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold," Billy Crystal returns as Mitch Robbins, who's compassionate, nurturing, decent, humane and caring.

I hate that in a man, and I hate it even more in a movie.

In fact, where the original was a comedy with a few disagreeable moments of male weepiness, "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold" is a male weeper with a few agreeable moments of comedy.

I suppose if your idea of movie fun is watching Crystal at his most sensitive, his antenna all jittery and his eyes all sloppy with the glycerine of empathy as he nurtures two sad sacks (Daniel Stern and Jon Lovitz) through rituals of bonding and purification, then you'll have a high old time. For my money, however, New Men make dim movies. They whine too much.

Indeed, if you cut the whining out, there wouldn't be much of a movie left. As it is, "City Slickers II" inflates about 20 minutes of material into two long hours; the rest is filler, repetition and self-pity. Worse, it's over-loaded with two-minute gag sequences that are blown out to 20 or so minutes.

Everything takes too long: The setup, for example, lasts literally the first third of the film; we don't even see a horse until the far side of Minute 40. The film opens in New York City, where now Crystal's Mitch is the manager of his radio station. The movie makes some peculiar decisions: It associates his lack of professionalism with virtue and sensitivity. He's hired his poor divorced pal Phil (Stern), who's a loser, but he can't bring himself to fire Phil. What a good thing it is to be sensitive! Everybody on the staff has to work overtime because A) Mitch is sensitive and gutless, and B) Phil is incapable of doing his job. Mitch and Phil, thank you for sharing your pain. Life is a big encounter group.

Suddenly Loser Two shows: Lovitz as Mitch's dreary, unemployable brother, subbing for Bruno Kirby, who decided to go elsewhere with his considerable talents. The minutes slog by as the movie lumbers to establish that Lovitz's Glen is an unattractive drone but that Crystal is too darn nice to turn his back on him. Meanwhile, you feel comedy pros Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, who also wrote the first one, layering in material that should pay off later, but too often you sense the mechanics of their labor. It's as if nobody wants to do the movie but the money's just too good.

The movie is a half-hour over before it even reaches its first complication: Mitch's discovery of a "treasure map" in the late Curly's hat, which locates a million dollars in gold somewhere in Nevada. Since he's conveniently headed to Las Vegas for a convention, he decides to take Phil along, and then Glen, and they agree to make a side trip to see if the map leads to gold.

Since Jack Palance, who won a sentimental Oscar for his role as the tough trail boss Curly, was the best thing in the original, they've got to get him back in. Hey, I know. What about as . . . an identical twin! That's pretty original. So, soon enough, here's the same old bully, with a face like a bucket of cashews and wing nuts, looking beadily at these groping New Yorkers. But for some incomprehensible reason, this time he's not a cowboy. He's a sailor. So a whole source of comedy -- his leathery competence vs. their pathetic incompetence -- has been removed and replaced with nothing. Over the long hall, they hardly do a thing with Palance; he's not used nearly as well as he was in the original.

Far too much of the film takes place not in the West, but in the land of the unbelievably stupid. Nobody is as stupid as Stern's Phil, who tells everybody they're hunting for treasure and generally acts so irresponsibly that instead of laughing, you lose all sympathy with him and all patience for Mitch's engagement in his dilemma.

As a principle of organization, the "treasure hunt" isn't nearly so efficient as the original cattle drive. For the longest time, the film wanders over the landscape while the principals exchange psychobabble and make discoveries about themselves. One night it gets cold and they hug. They are threatened by a stampede of wild horses (initiated, as ever, by a character's stupidity), but the danger is strictly a function of some overwrought photography; in the long shots you see the herd consists of about 30 mangy animals and is more a parade than a stampede. Like, why didn't they just get out of the way?

Occasionally a gag works, but it's usually apropos of nothing. In one, Crystal sets his office up for an important phone call, which he puts on speaker at a meeting, only to receive an especially intimate set of promises from his wife. And when you see the movie labor wheezily to implant the notion that he's got a cellular phone along and that he's lying (for no reason) to his wife, you can absolutely predict with mathematical certainty that at a sticky spot in the desert, she'll call. She does, but it's still funny.

Little enough else is.

"City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold"

Starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance

Directed by Paul Weiland

Released by Castle Rock

Rated PG-13

... **

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