City Slickers (1991) Dir. Ron Underwood

CITYSLICKERS CITY SLICKERS is one of those movies I saw when I was 10 years old.  I absolutely loved it for the adventure of three guys going on a cattle driving trip in the open plains of New Mexico and Colorado.  The film was a fun experience for me, although I was a little young to understand the more adult messages of what these guys were facing in their lives.  I’ve only seen the film occasionally on TV but last night I watched it for the first time in a long while.  What struck me is the connection I had with the three men as they face middle age head on and wondering if this is all there is going to be in their lives.  Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is 39 years old in this film.  I’m almost 32.  While that’s not quite middle age yet, I found myself more connected to these characters, watching them each face their own personal struggles.

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Mitch wonders if his life is ever going to be more than what it is, and the one thing that injects some kind of adventure and craziness into his dole drum existence are the vacations he takes with his childhood buddies Phil and Ed.  After awhile Mitch finds these trips a desperate attempt to cling on to his youth, but he becomes so depressed that his wife insists he goes on a Cattle Drive adventure in New Mexico and find his passion for life again.  On the trip he gets that and then some, as he meets trail boss Curly (the awesomely brilliant Jack Palace), who is one of the last of the real cowboys, and a downright scary fella.  Curly of course winds up being a reflection of Mitch, a crusty, grizzled, no nonsense kind of guy.  But he also teaches Mitch the value of finding the secret of life and embracing it.  He calls it that “one thing”…the thing that’s presently most important to you and you let that be the guiding force of your life.

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The other characters Phil and Ed are terrific as well.  Phil especially as he deals with the divorce of his wife, not knowing where his life went from the past 12 years.  Phil has to find a new passion for life when at this point he really has nothing left except his lonliness.  One of my favorite scenes in the film is the three of them talking about the best and worst day of their lives.  Ed has the most powerful story of all, talking about his best day when he stood up to his father who beat his mother and told him to get out.  It’s a powerful, sad moment that Bruno Kirby plays to perfection.

The stakes of the film build as the group deals with the death of Curly and two unruly cowhands who almost kill one of the young calves Mitch affectionately named Norman.  Once the two guys run off after Phil threatens them with a gun, the group finds themselves on their own with no choice but to move the herd themselves across the river and into the Colorado ranch.  It’s one of the things I admire most about this film is that once all the people helping them leave or abandon them, the three main characters are put to the test to safely get the cattle moving.  In that challenge, the three men wind up finding themselves.  Ed puts it perfectly that there are no more rules, no one telling them what to do, and that getting the cattle safely across is something he has to do for himself.  His friends wind up feeling the same way and help him out.

The irony though is that once the cattle are brought to safety, they find out that they are being sold to the meat company.  It’s a sad twist for the main characters as they developed an attachment to these cattle, and a reminder of the end of an era in the days of the cowboy.  CITY SLICKERS is a story about embracing your middle age and finding a passion for life.  Mitch laments in the beginning that his face is the best its ever going to look before he slumps down into old age.  He is clinging on to whats left of his younger years as he fears facing the inevitable with old age.  But that changes by the end of the film when he’s a little wiser, and becomes okay with facing old age, as long as he can still embrace the things that are most important to him in life.

I don’t want to forget also the great score by Marc Shaiman, and the wild rousing cowboy theme he wrote for the film.  It also includes a solid cast of supporting characters who help make the journey with our heroes, especially the great Noble Willingham, a dentist with his son eager to get everyone in the spirit of the adventure, as well as the brothers playing a take off of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream brothers.  CITY SLICKERS is a great, wonderful film with a sold message and story.  It’s and enduring classic that I hope to rewatch again the day I turn 39.

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