‘City Slickers’ Shows That The 1990s Were a High Point for Comedy Westerns


The Big Picture

  • City Slickers is an endearing story of friendship, aging, mortality, and appreciating the life one is given.
  • The movie successfully blends drama, adventure, and comedy, drawing on classics in the Western comedy genre.
  • City Slickers helped fuel the slight resurgence of Westerns in the nineties and made a hefty profit, despite being an unusual genre mashup.

The early ’90s were arguably one of the most interesting and transformative periods in film history. After a decade that was largely concerned with big emotions and even bigger visuals, the shift came in the form of an indie overhaul in what has become a tale as old as time. In that intermediate period, however, the direction that popular cinema was going to go remained nebulous at best. One year before Reservoir Dogs changed the game, City Slickers signaled a parallel but less radical overhaul in the form of the postmodern Western comedy. Long before The Ballad of Buster Scruggs but way after Blazing Saddles, City Slickers is a schmaltzy but endearing story of friendship, aging, mortality, and appreciating the life one is given.

City Slickers

On the verge of turning 40, an unhappy Manhattan yuppie is roped into joining his two friends on a cattle drive in the southwest.

Release Date
June 7, 1991

Ron Underwood

113 minutes


Main Genre

What Is ‘City Slickers’ About?

City Slickers revolves around a trio of friends, Mitch (Billy Crystal), Ed (Bruno Kirby) and Phil (Daniel Stern) who have reached middle age and are encountering a midlife crisis. They all have a multitude of personal and professional woes, and decide to go on a two-week cattle drive spanning New Mexico and Colorado in order to find some solace from their unsatisfying lives. They are exposed to a lifestyle that challenges and pushes them, and they gain insight about themselves along the way. The movie is extremely introspective, even if it does have a bad case of telling instead of showing its story.

Billy’s Crystal’s Mitch is expectedly witty, quipping his way through the movie’s antics. After assisting in a birth on the farm they’re residing at, Mitch forms a paternalistic bond with a calf whose mother dies during childbirth. It’s a nice metaphor for Mitch’s reawakening to his own responsibilities and identity as a father, and adds a tenderness to his character. The themes of the film are laid out pretty plainly, but are communicated effectively and clearly. The idea of a cowboy putting on his hat one more time before riding out into the sunset is nothing new, but City Slickers subverts the trope by making the “cowboys” three middle-aged, suburban men who need to become cowboys for a couple of weeks in order to rediscover themselves.

‘City Slickers’ Builds on Western Classics and Helped Produce a Few More

The movie is also very funny, drawing on classics in the Western comedy genre such as Blazing Saddles or Three Amigos. It has a good blend of slapstick comedy, but never veers into the realm of satire. It is utterly sincere, attempting to provide a healthy dose of drama, adventure, and comedy. It succeeds and fails simultaneously, but it is nonetheless a rare and original film that undoubtedly helped to fuel the slight resurgence of Westerns in the nineties due to its financial success. Namely, the decade produced a very Sam Raimi western in The Quick and the Dead, the Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West, and Jim Jarmusch‘s cult classic Dead Man.

City Slickers has all the necessary DNA to make a successful postmodern comedy Western. This reinvention of the genre didn’t stick, but it nonetheless was a success both financially and critically that the studios paid attention to, likely green-lighting a variety of other projects like the ones mentioned above. City Slickers made a hefty 180 million dollars on a 26 million dollar budget, making it an unusual success for such a unique genre mashup. Critically, it has continued to enjoy an overwhelmingly positive response, with contemporary reviews pointing out the movie’s excellent and charismatic cast and its universally relatable themes. Even Roger Ebert gave it a glowing three and a half star review, writing that it surprised him with its ambition and humor.


Billy Crystal to Play Child Psychiatrist in Barry Levinson’s Limited Series ‘Before’

Crystal’s character will be going through a tough time and grieving the loss of his wife.

‘City Slickers’ Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

close up of Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins and Jack Palance as Curly Washburn in City Slickers
image via moviestillsdb

Similar to other fads in movies and TV, it seems that studios bet too much on people wanting to see one kind of movie and forgetting to make projects that were actually funny or exciting. City Slickers wasn’t successful because it was a comedy Western, it was successful because it had a likable cast of characters going through a recognizable set of problems. The setting helped to give the movie an adventurous, old-fashioned tone, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the heart of the story was shallow. Few of the comedy Westerns that came out during the 90s dared to go as deep as City Slickers, even though the movie itself gives a pretty superficial analysis of the problems faced by Mitch, Ed, and Phil. Each of the three protagonists is a different kind of family man, and each has something that he knows he needs to do but isn’t able to do yet. Nevertheless, the film gives us very clear reasons to care for Mitch, Ed, Phil and their families.

The movie is mostly concerned with the societal pressures of growing older, specifically how society expects a certain number of accomplishments by a certain age and how those accomplishments are supposed to be fulfilling. All three men have accomplished a great deal, yet are experiencing individual bouts of malaise. They don’t feel fulfilled by any of their accomplishments and instead are weighed down by the things in their life that they lack. The thematic creativity of City Slickers can be seen in other similar films of the era, ranging from the more traditional approach seen in films like Tombstone to Trey Parker‘s Cannibal! The Musical. Tombstone for example is still very much a postmodern Western in that it acknowledges its place in the genre. It makes nods to classics, going as far as to have similar music to John Ford’s The Searchers in order to evoke the feeling of that film. It is an intentional Western, re-purposing elements of the genre to create something new.

City Slickers helped to pave the way for postmodern takes on the Western genre by being touching, funny and unafraid to experiment with tone and the tropes of the genre. It has unfortunately been exiled to the annals of ’90s films no one talks about anymore. While movies like Dead Man have enjoyed a cult following, it seems like City Slickers is too much of an oddball to be considered a proper gem of the decade, yet too mainstream to be considered a quirky cult film. It falls somewhere in the middle, but it is by no means lacking in charm.

City Slickers is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video.



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