During the months long build up to the release of Anchorman 2, a question has burned in parts of my brain not being bombarded with images of Ron Burgundy: Has there ever been a good sequel to a comedy?
I was truly at a loss to come up with a single example of one that really worked and was worth making. But as I was flipping around on TV tonight, I stumbled on an obscure channel that was showing City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. That film certainly would not qualify as a good sequel, but man was it an honest movie.
In an almost refreshingly self-aware manner, City Slickers 2 was made for one reason. Everyone involved with it, even the characters in the movie, were in it for the money.
Isn’t rehashing old material to make some bucks the understood purpose of any sequel? Maybe, but no sequel to my memory wears its desire to grab more of the audiences’ cash more blatantly than this one.
The original City Slickers was a harmless enough piece of standard Hollywood entertainment. Billy Crystal was once a movie star and was coming off of a smash hit with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally… So why not take Billy and Bruno Kirby, who played his best friend in Harry, and put them in a middle age crisis comedy in the wild west?
The 1991 film was a runaway hit and cemented Crystal as a major star. But the frequent Oscar host seemed to have a bigger ambition. Palance won an Oscar for City Slickers. His Comic Relief co host Whoopi Goldberg had won an Oscar for Ghost. At the time Robin Williams had multiple nominations (he would eventually win for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.) It was Billy’s turn for Academy Award glory.
His follow-up to City Slickers was the wildly ambitious Mr. Saturday Night, which he wrote, directed and starred in. He acted in old age makeup and gave himself big emotional scenes to play along with his quips as a Borscht Belt comic.
The film was blatant Oscar bait. But the competition was strong that year and Oscar celebrated Clint Eastwood with Unforgiven and gave a long overdue trophy to Al Pacino. Crystal’s co star David Paymer (who appeared in City Slickers) was nominated for Mr. Saturday Night, but Billy was not. He hosted the ceremony and snuck in the title of his movie into the opening medley of the major nominees.
His attempt at the Oscar flopped at the box office and with the Academy. Billy Crystal needed another money maker and suddenly City Slickers 2 was put into production.
Now there were several factors that made the sequel even less necessary than most follow ups. The original was a contained story about guys dealing with a mid-life crisis. They come to grips with their problems at the end of the film. There is no need to go back to the wild west.
Also, Bruno Kirby and Billy Crystal had a falling out in real life. Kirby, one of the funniest character actors ever, bowed out of the sequel. Jon Lovitz replaced Kirby as Crystal’s estranged brother. Of course Lovitz is a very talented comedic performer, but the absence of Kirby’s voice and timing was felt badly.
Having Jack Palance reprise his Oscar-winning role would be more problematic. Palance’s Curly had died in the original. Needless to say Palance’s presence in the film was needed.
Crystal admitted in an interview that they considered making him a ghost, but remembered how awful that worked with John Gielgud in Arthur 2, another totally unneeded comedy sequel.
The easiest solution to including Palance in the film would be to write an original movie. Reuniting Crystal and Palance and Daniel Stern in another movie would have eliminated the need for any convoluted explanations and or for tying every action back to the original film.
But remember the whole point of the film was to get everyone who went to see City Slickers to drag their butts back to the theater and essentially watch the same film again.
The sequel begins with all the characters from the original film still happy (except Bruno Kirby who is no longer part of any of their lives.) Crystal still has the bull he helped deliver in City Slickers and he inexplicably has Jack Palance’s hat.
Crystal sees Palance’s face in his window and thinks he sees a ghost. What he is seeing is the allure of cash. (Notice I refer to the characters by the actor’s name and not by their screen names. If they didn’t care, why should I?)
The plot, as it was, has a treasure map discovered by Crystal in Palance’s hat. He goes to Las Vegas with Stern and Lovitz and they all take a detour into the desert to try to find Curly’s long lost gold.
Crystal lies to his wife and risks his friend’s and his brother’s life all for one purpose: They want to get rich. And this is repeated over and over throughout the film. Crystal’s character is not hurting for money in the film. There is no sick mother he needs to take care nor an orphanage that needs the dough. He has enough money but wants more of it.
Again, it was refreshing to see such honesty on the screen.
The rest of the movie could have been condensed into 10 minutes but instead was stretched over an hour. There are lots of montages and improvised banter and a lot of “We almost did something gay!” humor. Then Crystal, Stern and Lovitz get saved first by Jack Palance’s body double and then by Jack.
The lame excuse to have Jack return was he is actually Curly’s twin brother Duke, a choice only slightly less insulting than him being a ghost. The best explanation would have been he wasn’t dead in the first movie and was buried alive and was now back. At least that would include Crystal and Palance’s back story.
As the film plods along to anything resembling a conclusion, two telling scenes occur involving Palance and Crystal.
Palance is seen dressed exactly the same as in the original, riding a horse, brandishing a gun and looking straight out of a classic western like his iconic villain role in Shane. But remember he is playing a different character now. He reveals that in fact he hates the wild west and he left home to be a sailor. He lives for the sea and the ocean. Well, no better place to put a character like THAT than in the middle of a desert.
Watching the scene unfold, the possibility of a much more interesting sequel was revealed. While the first one was in the wild west, the second one could have been a pirate film on the high seas. Crystal and company would be looking for pirate treasure and Palance could have been introduced as an old sea salt who looks exactly like his counterpart from the first film. It could have a totally different look while mining new comedic ground.
But new and original ideals are the enemy to a sequel that is just a cash grab, which leads to the second telling scene. In the original, Palance teaches Crystal to find one thing in his life that makes him happy. He raises his pointer finger to represent the elusive happiness. In the sequel, Palance as the twin makes fun of the “one thing” concept, the whole point of the first film and holds up one finger to say the important thing is “the gold.”
Never to my recollection has a character of a movie franchise literally raised a finger in defiance to the message of original film and proudly announce their greed.
The film gave half-hearted lip service to reconciling with brothers and Billy Crystal needing to tell his wife the truth of what he is doing in the desert. But they are all quickly pushed aside to look for the money.
Eventually Crystal et al stumble into the old mine and after some tame physical humor, they find gold bars. But the big reveal is that the map was a fake and that the original Palance character (the one who cared about things other than money) was helping set up some sort of amusement park before he died… or something. The gold was fake and characters everyone forgot existed from the first movie show up for no reason other than they are friends with Billy Crystal.
The film tries to wrap up with life lessons. Billy says he is happy that he is close to Lovitz again and is proud of Daniel Stern for not shitting his pants. Lots of music swells and it is supposed to be heart warming. They learn that even though they did not get gold, they got something much more valuable: respect.
Then it happened. And by “it”, I mean the most obviously forced and rewritten and slapped on at the last-minute ending in the history of movies.
The film, that featured spectacular western backdrops and many characters ends in a hotel room. Billy never does a scene where he comes clean to his wife. Who cares about her? She would get in the way of the money. His wife is not seen ever again after he leaves for the desert. Lovitz and Stern are not in the scene. They were probably off working on other projects.
Instead Billy and Palance are alone in a hotel room, presumably the suite booked for Palance during the reshoot. Billy literally does the scene in a bathrobe. The two have a “the map was a fake” “oh no it wasn’t” exchange until Palance pulls out a gold bar and puts it on a table.
Crystal is thrilled that there really is gold and screams for joy, looking into the camera. Cut to black.
I’m not fucking kidding. That’s how the movie ends.
Clearly the audience wanted him to find gold and not learn some bullshit lesson about trust and honor. And obviously there was no time to shoot a whole new scene where they find the gold. So have Palance, still dressed as a cowboy even though he is a sailor, show up with one prop. Boom! There is your ending.
Billy Crystal screaming for joy while looking into the camera is a nice touch. Essentially his character is getting more wealth just as Crystal is as well. While in the movie, the riches come from the gold, in reality it comes from the very people he was looking at: The audience members who shelled out money to see a tepid remake of the original movie.
Were Lovitz or Stern going to take part of the money from the gold? What about Kirby? It doesn’t matter. This was all about Billy Crystal needing to make some more money.
So as more comedy sequels are being made and recycled, remember City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. Was it a good movie? Absolutely not.
Was it the only film to raise a finger, look you in the eye and admit exactly what it is? You bet.
Palance and Kirby both died in 2006. I am not 100% certain that would prevent Billy Crystal from writing a third movie if he needed to.