If Hollywood had any ‘it’ writers in the 1980s and early ’90s, it was the duo of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who cranked out comedy after comedy, drawing on reasonably current events or topical themes while banking on the fact that giant stars would sign up to appear in the big-idea, big-budget movies. No one seemed to care if the actual writing was good as long as Tom Hanks was talking to a mermaid (Splash) or Michael Keaton was trying to make his way through the Japanese auto industry (Gung Ho). A funny setup goes a long way.
Ganz and Mandel’s most successful outing was arguably this one, and it’s the highest-concept story of them all: City folk go on ‘vacation’ to work a real cattle drive, and of course they’ also find themselves along the way. In this case, Billy Crystal takes the reins (ho ho!) here, after coming off the huge success of When Harry Met Sally… He’s a down-in the-dumps advertising executive named Mitch Robbins who is tasked by his equally dour wife to ‘find his smile.’ Naturally, herding cattle’s the place to do it.
Of course, this doesn’t turn into any ordinary vacation. With pals Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), Mitch and his crew learn life the cowboy way, endure endless hat- and beans-oriented humor, and face extreme hardship when their guide Curly (Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning role) up and dies and the other cowhands turn out to be cruel and useless drunks. Specifically, the rest of the tour (filled with stock characters) turns back, while the trio of friends decides to foolhardily press on and finish the drive. Complications ensue, and Mitch has to find more than just his smile to get through it.
Featuring not just a laughable story line but also one of the worst catchphrases in movie history (Crystal’s obsequious ‘Hellooooooooooo…’ shows up at least half a dozen times over the course of the film), the outright corniness of City Slickers is palpable from frame one. Literally: The first scene of the movie is Mitchell and co. at the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Guess who gets gored in the keister?
Fortunately, City Slickers is ultimately harmless good fun with a number of memorable moments and, though I’d have trouble calling his performance Oscar-worthy, Palance is a genuine treat to watch for his 10 or so minutes of screen time. That said, the movie may have a bit of a curse to it. The inevitable sequel was a dud (earning $44 million vs. the original’s $124 million), and in fact Lowell and Ganz have never since had a hit anywhere near the level of the one they struck here. Ditto director Ron Underwood (he’d go on to direct the famous disaster The Adventures of Pluto Nash) and, for that matter, Crystal himself. Who can forget a desperate Crystal in his Oscar-hosting appearance, begging the audience to go see his soon-to-be-released 1998 film My Giant?
The new collector’s edition DVD includes commentary from Underwood, Crystal, and Stern, two deleted scenes, and a number of making-of featurettes.