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HEAD 'EM UP, MOVE 'EM OUT

Mitch Robbins is a 39-year-old radio airtime salesman from New Jersey. He's on a horse, in a herd of cattle, traversing the Colorado-New Mexico border. He's looking for his smile. In the enormously engaging City Slickers, he's also looking for the meaning of life, of love, of friendship and, most importantly, the cure for midlife crisis.

With Billy Crystal as Mitch, City Slickers seems like a latter-day When Harry Met Sally. . . Harry has grown up, raised a family and changed his name. But the souls are the same.

While When Harry Met Sally. . . and City Slickers were written and directed by different people, and while the casts bear little resemblance, there is a similarity in tone and theme that makes the movies beguiling companion pieces.

City Slickers, which Crystal conceived and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood) wrote, is shallower and sillier than its predecessor. Yet it successfully explores the fears men feel on the cusp of middle age.

As City Slickers begins, Mitch is losing his smile. His love for his family and his job is withering, not from neglect but lack of variation. He needs an adventure.

His wife (Patricia Wettig) urges him to join his friends, Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), who have reserved three slots on a dude ranch's cattle drive. (Their last outing was running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.)

So, with some reluctance, Mitch joins his buddies, learning to ride and rope with a bunch of other city slickers who have paid for the privilege of getting saddle sores, eating substandard food on the range and being abused by an ancient trail boss (Jack Palance).

There are the requisite guffaws _ an accidental stampede, Mitch being dragged through the brush by a roped steer _ but the emphasis is on male bonding without guns.

Although Phil, Ed and Mitch have been friends since childhood, they have drifted apart during the years. Phil, a grocer, has been emasculated by his domineering wife and his father-in-law, who also is his former boss. Ed, a sporting goods salesman, is a latter-day Peter Pan, courting increasingly younger women. ("Pretty soon, he'll be dating sperm," Mitch notes.)

Together they face their fears and failings on a cattle drive that goes from bad to worse.

There are disasters. There is death. There are rifts among the greenhorns and the cowboys that force Mitch, Phil and Ed to bring home the beef alone. During the process, they find their smiles.

City Slickers is the simplest of comedies. Its success hinges on its cast, and Kirby, Stern and Crystal are superb.

Backing them are a slew of fine supports, including city slickers Josh Mostel and David Paymer as the founders of the "Ira & Barry" ice cream empire, Phill Lewis and Bill Henderson as a father-son dentistry team and Helen Slater as the sole female on the drive. Palance, whom Crystal describes as "a saddlebag with eyes," is gloriously grizzled as the trail boss who takes an instant dislike to Crystal's Mitch.

Director Ron Underwood (Tremors) moves City Slickers at a brisk pace, incorporating as much improvised Crystal schtick as possible without hindering the story's flow.

There are some shortcomings inherent to the script, most notably that women are used as set dressing (although they're less stereotypical than the men in Thelma & Louise). And, there's a certain shallowness to the male trio's friendship since City Slickers' emphasis is on comic slapstick (rather than bonding as in Thelma & Louise).

But a better escape than City Slickers is hard to find.

City Slickers is Deliverance with laughs, celebrating family, friendship and males' somewhat twisted view of maturity, with a salute to such Western classics as Red River, which serves as the inspiration for its cook's name as well as the yell at the outset of this calamitous cattle drive.

MOVIE REVIEW

City Slickers

Director: Ron Underwood

Cast: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Patricia Wettig, Helen Slater, Jack Palance

Screenplay: Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel

Rating: PG-13 (profanity, violence)

Running time: 110 minutes

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