Every year after the hangover of watching "oh so many" films for both Oscars Season and forming my "Best of the Year" list, as well as my usual fare of consuming film after film for podcasts and other such content, I like to unwind with some casual viewing. This year brought me to the likes of binging all four Hunger Games movies in a single day (a choice I stand by), and also checking out two beloved films from my youth that I haven’t rewatched in over twenty years: the City Slickers movies.
Now, historically, these films are considered to fall into the most common of two-part comedy franchises: the first one is really great and the second one kinda sucks. This is sort of true in the case, but I’d argue that’s because City Slickers is probably one of the best comedies made in the 90s, and a follow-up was already destined for falling behind. Let us discuss.
The first film, released in 1991, finds three lifelong friends venturing out on the chest-thumping, manliness-proving exercise of driving cattle from one ranch to another across the Colorado landscape, all a part of a dude ranch experience they’ve paid for. These three men include: Mitch (Billy Crystal), who has become more and more depressed with his lot in life as a recently turned 39-year-old with an unfilling job and a family that is feeling the repercussions. Phil (Daniel Stern), has just ended a toxic relationship with a henpecking wife by accidentally impregnating a store clerk that works for him at his father-in-law's grocery store after very intentionally sleeping with her. And finally, there’s Ed (Bruno Kirby), a full-of-himself, machismo type who has recently married an underwear model but still has doubts about settling down. Great guys with zero issues. At the ranch, they encounter a number of oddball characters, but none more concerning than the cattle drive’s trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance), whose old cowboy ways and general “I crap bigger than you” demeanor leaves a lot to be desired on the communication front. What follows is a story about a group of (you guessed it) city slickers embarking on an adventure that has the “Old West” test their bravery, but more importantly, their friendship and worldview.
Now, this first movie is an all-timer, loaded with absolute peak Billy Crystal charm-edy, and giving you all the laughs you want but with a little bit more heart and thought than you might have been expecting. That’s the secret sauce to City Slickers. The tangent conversations in the film range from matter-of-fact, slice-of-life comedy to truly personal thoughts of existence, time, regret, and love, made all the more affecting by the fact the three leads (and the script) really make you believe that these three guys have been friends for a long time. There’s a back-and-forth that is present in just about any buddy movie, especially comedies, but there’s an amazing lightning-in-a-bottle effect that occurs whenever Crystal, Stern, and Kirby are on screen together talking about anything from operating VCR recordings to having affairs with voluptuous aliens.
Roger Ebert described the movie as being about “human nature” more than anything else, and I partly agree with him, since the movie is pretty much more about “mid-life crisis, white guy” nature. It’s about three men trying to prove their manliness, though that means something different to each of them, and learning that they’ve reached an age and a time in their lives where it’s more about being honest with yourself and finding out what matters most than trying to do what you think you’re supposed to, or even what you want to.
Desson Howe of The Washington Post mentioned in his review at the film’s release, its similarities to The Wizard of Oz, which I agree with but also have some slightly different interpretations. Phil, who learns to stand up for himself and accept that life can start again even at his age, gets his courage. Ed, after realizing that life is too short to be hung up on what might be down the road, learns to think rationally. And Mitch, being given the meaning of life from Curly as “find that one thing,” eventually discovers that his family that he has built and the life he has been afforded is the thing that matters the most, finding his heart. All of this is due to the otherworldly guidance of trail boss Curly, as the “Dorothy” that leads them along in this scenario. But don’t tell him that.
City Slickers is playfully action-packed and bordering on mumblecore comedy in all the right ways. The movie operates as a very good western tucked into the mid-life crisis comedy of Crystal at the time, who is the sex symbol we deserved in the early nineties. And I’m not one to preach the legitimacy of the Academy, but hot damn Jack Palance pulling in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this is a hell of a win for Team Fun.
After the massive success of City Slickers, it was only natural for a sequel to begin to sprout, and that came in the form of the much-maligned City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, hitting cinemas everywhere in 1994. While released three years after the first film, the plot of City Slickers II takes place one year after the events of the original, with Mitch now perfectly content with his family life and running a very successful radio ad agency. Phil, who has been sinking back into his self-pity and desperate lifestyle, is working at Mitch’s agency unknowingly as a favor from Mitch, one that has a ticking clock that unfortunately is about to bounce springs and gears. To top it all off, Mitch’s deadbeat, and previously undisclosed brother (we’ll return to this), Glen (Jon Lovitz) has dropped in for a surprise visit that Mitch and his wife are sure will lead to a little money lending and much Godfather reenactments. Long story short, Mitch discovers a treasure map in the hat of the deceased Curly, a token he had held onto from the first film, and he decides to use a business trip to Las Vegas as an excuse to go after the gold, bringing Phil and Glen along for the ride. But once they’re on the hunt, they encounter Curly’s previously undisclosed twin brother (see), Duke, once again played by Academy Award winner Jack Palance, who is also after the gold. The crew agrees to work together and split the wealth, forging forward into the West, all the while talking about VCRs and brotherly affection.
So, let’s get two things out of the way: City Slickers II is nowhere near as good as City Slickers. I mean, it got nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Remake or Sequel, which is a totally legitimate reason for someone to think the movie sucks, amirite? But more importantly (or seriously), what City Slickers II lacks is the practically undefinable synergy of comedy and soul that the first nailed with ease. That’s the easiest takeaway. And while I agree that the sequel fails to live up to the levels of both of those ingredients from the first, I do think that there is a lot here of worth.
I’m drawing a blank on thinking of anything in cinema history as impressive as the writers and everyone involved in this movie just being like “Fuck it, Curly had a twin brother and he’s played by Jack Palance again. His name is Duke. He pretty much acts just like him, only give him more dialogue.” That’s some baller shit, even if it’s also some daytime soap opera shit. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. And honestly, I think the choices they made with Duke’s character are pretty cool. He’s actually a bit more cutting and unkind than Curly, which isn’t to say that both characters have different hang-ups on “city folk.” It’s just that Curly had a very personal experience with Mitch in the first film that opened him up, and Duke doesn’t really have that, but he’s also not Curly. He’s a totally different guy. His distaste for these idiots is relatable to Curly’s, but he’s actually a bit nastier than his brother in the interactions. I think that’s a pretty cool choice!
As for the rest of the movie, there’s an obvious parallel to Curly’s brother showing up just as we, the audience, are learning about Mitch’s relationship with his brother Glen. And I think that’s where the movie has its strongest through-point in comparison to what the first film was really talking about in between the jokes and gags. Bruno Kirby decided to not return for this installment, reportedly because he was aggressively allergic to horses, something I learned halfway through my rewatch of the first film, and, buddy, yep that shows. No disrespect to the actor, his character was usually miffed at all times anyways, but anytime he is in a scene with a horse, you can notice he is increasingly distempered. So, having to fill the third slot in Slicker's gang, Mitch’s brother makes the most sense given what the rest of the film is about to explore. Not only because of the similarities to the Curly/Duke dynamic but also as an extension of the first film that found Mitch coming to terms with who he is and what matters to him most: family. This chapter finds him not only wrestling with maintaining that newly found serenity in the face of wealth and success but with his past familiar actions as well. Granted, Glen is presented as a pretty lame, burn-out bro, but Lovitz brings an energy to the performance that is equal parts comedic and quotable as well as touching and understandable. I just really dig what his inclusion, as both actor and character, brings to this chapter.
While we’re on Lovitz, I absolutely must confess this. I didn’t realize how formative this movie was to me until this recent rewatch. I owned City Slickers II on VHS when I was growing up, and would watch it repeatedly, for no reason I can fathom at this time. Rewatching it now, I was shocked to discover that I had seen this movie at least a dozen times before I had seen any of the Godfather films, and Jon Lovitz’s character bit of quoting Godfather scenes is actually where I pull a lot of the most famous quotes from those films. I know they’re from the Godfather(s), but they’re in Jon Lovitz’s voice when I think about them in my head, most specifically “THIS is the business we’ve chosen!” Just needed to speak my truth on that, and confess that using those quotes in my day-to-day life has returned and I don’t know how to feel about it.
Ultimately, City Slickers II is a distant and different achievement than its predecessor, and that’s kind of why I love it. Some choices could’ve been made in the design and execution of the sequel that might’ve made it better, but I don’t think that any of those choices would’ve made it more enjoyable. The fact that they are making a movie about a bunch of guys chasing hidden gold while making a movie trying to capture the gold that was City Slickers, is just too hard for me to ignore as a context pervert.
I just love them both so much, for different reasons, just like you would one son and another previously undisclosed son. City Slickers III, please?
City Slickers and City Slickers II are currently available on HBO Max.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading and listening to things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.