Movies give us a lonely view of life: They focus on a hero, a bad guy, a best friend, and the rest of the world gets cast as extras. But reality is more crowded than that — think of all the people you deal with in the course of one day — and so is the Screen Actors Guild. Sometimes it seems a shame how many interesting faces get pushed to the background while the romantic leads are making out.
Thank goodness, then, for ensemble comedies like City Slickers, new to video and stuffed to the brim with big names, little names, and no-names. True, the face on the tape box belong to Billy Crystal but this movie isn’t star package. Is a democracy of talent, offering one miniature star turn after another.
If the surprisingly thoughtful City Slickers synchs up with Crystal’s sensitive-wisenheimer personality, that may be because he also served as executive producer. Don’t expect a vanity trip, though. This tale of three buddies smoothing out mid-life crises on a backcountry cattle drive does put its star at hilarious center stage but closely surrounds him with some wonderful character actors. Jack Palance brings the weight of 40 years of laconic movie menace to Curly, trail boss and embodiment of Western glories past, and Josh Mostel (Zero’s son) is magnificently crabby as a vacationing ice cream tycoon.
Better yet, Slickers gives costarring status to two gifted but long underused performers. Daniel Stern has enlivened movies as far apart as C.H.U.D. and The Milagro Beanfield War, but his hangdog charm really clicks here. As the lethally henpecked Phil, he gets the movie’s most satisfying moment, rising up against a campfire thug with the rage of a man who has seen a lifetime of bullies. Bruno Kirby (The Freshman, When Harry Met Sally) fares less well as macho man Ed, if only because he gets the worst of the therapy-speak for which the action often screeches to a halt. His big climactic line is ”I’m going to go home and get Kim pregnant!” and do you know anyone who actually talks like that?
In general, City Slickers’ speechifying seems to stick out more awkwardly on video than it did in the theater, maybe because the lovely prairie vistas are less diverting on the small screen. You may also notice how underwritten the female roles are. As the Token Woman on the cattle drive, Helen Slater is asked to look a) winsome and b) threatened — a waste of her genuine talents. As Crystal’s wife, Patricia Wettig acts more like his mother. A small, fierce exception is Yeardley Smith (TV’s voice of Lisa Simpson) as a supermarket cashier with some unwelcome news. For the most part, though, the closest Slickers comes to a love interest is Norman the calf. B+