In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
I’m taking a cue from the 1990-93 Academy Awards this week and doing back-to-back Billy Crystal movies. This week, 1991’s City Slickers.
You know how in LOST, we learn that (omg spoilarz) Jacob (good) and the Smoke Monster (evil) are actually brothers, born of one loving mother but twisted into polar opposites by time and a morally dubious influence (their adoptive mother, who murdered their biological one)? For those of you who aren’t LOST geeks, think about Cain and Abel or something. (And for the huge LOST geeks, yes, I know, neither son was 100% good or evil. Shut up, I’m trying to make a stupid point here.)
Anyway, the point is that City Slickers seems like the kindly buddy-adventure-comedy mother of two buddy-adventure-comedy sons – the good Hangover/Pineapple Express/Shaun of the Dead bunch, and the evil Grown Ups/Boat Trip/Chuck&Larry bunch. Both groups have the same basic premise – some dudes broaden their horizons and their friendships by embarking on a wacky journey and maybe just maybe find love along the way – but somehow, one brother has been twisted into a shallow, terrible, fart-joke-filled shadow of its twin. Not that City Slickers is singular or groundbreaking, per se, but it feels so much like a prototype of both types of movies – and as such, it constantly feels on the verge of being either really funny, or really, really terrible. For better or worse, it never really falls on either side.
The reason it manages to avoid either fate is that this film is unfailingly, unflinchingly earnest. No heart is left unsleeved, no emotion unexplored by buddies who love each other. It’s sweet, actually – and believe me, I’ll never speak out against earnestness in comedy – but it’s surprising how many opportunities for jokes are half-fulfilled or ignored completely. Considering the time period in which it was made, though, it makes a certain amount of sense – it’s a film nestled right in between the 80s, a decade of pushing the comedy envelope into uncharted waters of concept and crudeness, and the 2000s, a decade of slicing pathos, jokes and plot as thin as possible. The 90s were a sappy decade for film, for sure, and City Slickers is no exception. The sketch format of 80s comedies is put to more sentimental use here - there is some compartmentalization to the scenes, but generally they’re used as a chance to give these three guys a different reason to talk about their feelings.
And, as children strive to stand on the shoulders of their parents, the recent movies in this genre take one element of a movie like City Slickers and run with it. A comedy like Knocked Up, for example, ditches the concept in favor of bigger jokes in a smaller space, and the ability to hone the sentimentality and use it sparingly to pack the biggest punch. A movie like Wild Hogs, on the other hand, regurgitates the premise, jokes and heart without creating any of its own, and ends up a black hole of humor and emotion.
City Slickers definitely skirts the line between the joke-to-hug ratio of a legit comedy and that of a family film, and most often it lands on Crystal to pepper in enough weird jokes to keep it from being a straight-up heartwarming adventure, which he does pretty well. But it’s the good intentions of the film that keep it from feeling anything like the faux-sappy uncomedies that succeeded it, and from 2010, where a comedy of such unabashed sweetness is pretty rare, it’s actually sort of refreshing.
I would like to take issue, however, with the fact that JACK PALANCE WON AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR THIS MOVIE. That, ladies and gentlemen, is ridiculous. He had the easiest job of 1991. To strike a match on his face and look leathery. That’s Palance’s whole thing. That’s like giving Walken an Oscar for ignoring punctuation.