This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, in honor of Valentine’s Day, Brown picked “Urban Cowboy.”
The Movie: “Urban Cowboy” (1980)
Starring: John Travolta, Debra Winger, Scott Glenn, Madolyn Smith Osborne
Director: James Bridges
Plot Summary: (From Netflix) A Texas farm boy who moves to the city gravitates to a honky-tonk with a mechanical bull and fast women, including a sassy flirt he impetuously weds.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 77 percent
Brown: After doing several action movies and thrillers in a row, a romantic drama like “Urban Cowboy” may seem like an odd choice. The reason I decided to choose this movie is in August, my parents will be coming up on their 35th wedding anniversary.
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I asked them what was the first movie they saw as a couple. So, here we are, and in a long con kind of way, this movie is responsible for my being on this planet.
So, is “Urban Cowboy” a movie for lovers?
Froemming: Well, if those lovers are really into toxic, abusive relationships, then yeah, this movie is perfect for them. For the rest of us, this movie is a deeply disturbing look into a very flawed and abusive relationship between a man, a woman, a socialite, an ex-convict and the mechanical bull they all love.
Brown: Let’s be honest here: The first half of this movie is a love story between John Travolta and a mechanical bull. This whole thing is mind-boggling and clearly a movie meant for a certain time period that does not work nowadays. As we’re going to find out, this is like a Romeo and Juliet story, if Romeo and Juliet were living in a trailer and acted like insane Wal-Mart shoppers.
Froemming: OK, the premise is Travolta (who plays Bud) moves to the big city for some vague reason, gets a job and spends all his nights at a seedy honky tonk bar, where he meets Sissy, the woman he marries after one date.
Brown: A couple things before you go on. First, because the movie was vague about why he’s in the big city I looked it up… Bud moves outside of Houston to work at an oil refinery plant with his uncle Bob so he can make some money and move back to his hometown.
Second, we cannot talk about the beginning without mentioning John Travolta’s glorious beard. Hell, I think it’s better if we just show the visual evidence.
Lastly, Bud and Sissy finally chat at the bar and there is so much awkward silence. Travolta and Debra Winger (playing Sissy), do they have any chemistry?
Froemming: No, absolutely they do not. At all. Which I want to get at a little later, because it was one of the big issues I had with this movie.
But to get back to the main plot: So Bud and Sissy get married (and buy a home, which is a trailer). Bud, one night, becomes fascinated and obsessed with a mechanical bull at their watering hole, Gilley’s. Sissy does as well, and this becomes a point of contention in their marriage.
Brown: And they are at Gilley’s EVERY NIGHT in this movie. Bud and Sissy have to be alcoholics, right?
Froemming: They have to be alcoholics. I mean, whenever Bud is at home, he’s pulling from a bottle of Jack Daniels or downing beers. Sissy always has a beer in her hand. And they spend all their free time at the bar.
Brown: Another thing that bothered me throughout the entire movie was the obsession with the mechanical bull. These people live in Texas. How hard would it be to drive a little ways out of Houston to go find a bull you can ride? There’s some eye-rolling line later in the movie where they say a mechanical bull is harder to ride than an actual bull because you don’t know what the guy controlling the switch will do. OK, you fall off the mechanical bull onto some pads. A real bull, you’re hitting the ground hard and have an angry horned beast staring you down.
Basically, being the best mechanical bull rider and thinking you’re a cowboy because of it is like being the best “Guitar Hero” player and thinking you’re a musician.
Froemming: This leads us to the guy who controls the bull in the movie, Wes. Wes is an ex-con who ends up working at Gilley’s running the bull that has taken over Bud’s life at this point. Wes is our antagonist — kind of. There are no real likable characters in this film, so I am cautious of using protagonist and antagonist terms here in the typical “good guy versus bad guy” sense.
Brown: You’re absolutely right. Every person in this movie is garbage, save for Uncle Bob. And for different reasons. Bud is misogynistic. Sissy tries to get attention from everyone like a high-school sophomore. Wes is quick to violence, and I’m leery of trusting a cowboy in a mesh t-shirt. The 80s were weird, man.
Froemming: They were. Yeah, one of the only times I actually kind of cheered in this film was when Wes kicked Bud’s ass. Which I don’t think the filmmaker was going for. But at that point, Bud had become so unbearable, I think everyone wanted his ass kicked.
Brown: Instead, Bud gets insanely jealous of anyone else who rides the mechanical bull that he assaults Wes and Sissy because of it. At one point, Sissy tells Wes that they’ve only been married for a week. You got beat up over a mechanical bull, get that marriage annulled. Now.
So with the cracks of their marriage showing (and really, how is a love formed at a honky tonk bar not built to last?), Bud and Sissy have a little game of one-upmanship at Gilley’s by two-steppin’ with other people. Sissy gets with Wes and Bud finds a young brunette named Pam.
Froemming: I would like to point out here that Bud has no issue with sleeping with another woman, while we do see Sissy struggle with trying to have an affair with Wes. Again, Bud is a garbage human being. Also, Bud asks Pam if she is going to take him home and rape him. Which is just wrong on so many levels, but I think it needs to be brought up.
Brown: I know sensibilities are different 35 years later, but man, my jaw hit the floor when Bud said that line.
Something else about Bud and Pam’s tryst, and I’ll be jumping around here a bit. Near the end of the movie when *spoiler alert* Bud starts falling in love with Sissy again, Pam dumps Bud because he’s putting all this work in at the indoor rodeo to impress Sissy. Pam, the entire reason you and Bud have a relationship was to make Sissy jealous! You never had a problem with it before. Again, this movie is nothing but GARBAGE people. Pam is at least redeemed to me because she admits she’s a garbage person as she walks out.
Froemming: And Sissy gets out of her abusive relationship with Bud and heads into an even more abusive relationship with Wes, which was heartbreaking. She should really just leave Houston at this point for her own health and sanity.
Brown: Yeah, with Bud, the abuse was a little more emotional, save for a few times where he hit her. Wes, it escalates to violence much quicker. And he’s more open about cheating on Sissy than Bud, who is pretty damn open to cheating on her, too, whether it’s with Pam or with the mechanical bull.
Froemming: For a movie about mechanical bull riding, it sure felt that the whole mechanical bull thing was forced into this plot. It doesn’t feel organic to the story at all.
Brown: This goes for every relationship in this movie: If you’re fighting constantly because of a mechanical bull, break up! Man, I feel like we’re teetering awfully close to this movie review turning into a Dr. Laura relationship advice column.
Froemming: Probably because I have never seen a more screwed up relationship in a movie before, and that includes “Sid and Nancy.”
Brown: That’s exactly what I thought! This is “Sid and Nancy: Honky Tonk Edition.”
Froemming: But with Sid and Nancy, you got a sense they actually loved each other, that is something we do not get in “Urban Cowboy.” There is no chemistry between Bud and Sissy. They feel more like roommates than a couple. I saw more emotion out of Bud with the mechanical bull than I did with him and Sissy.
Brown: Hell, I got more emotion out of Sissy with the mechanical bull than I did with her and Bud. The way she rides the bull sexually in an attempt to make Bud jealous is way more intimate than anything in her relationship with Bud. I hope Bud and Sissy never had kids.
Froemming: OK, so Bud and Sissy split and are with other people in more or less abusive relationships. And Gilley’s is having a competition, in which one area includes a mechanical bull riding contest, which Bud uses to try and get Sissy back — I think.
Brown: This involves Bud going to Uncle Bob (again, one of the few redeeming characters in this flick) and they have a “Rocky” montage of Travolta riding the bull. Look I don’t know what company makes mechanical bulls, but they must have bought Paramount a new lot or something…
Froemming: RIP Uncle Bob, who perishes in a freak lightning storm in this movie. Yeah, that happens.
So this movie turns into a “Rocky” and “Karate Kid” film in its third act, which was very odd. And Wes is also entering the contest, which sets up for a climactic ending that isn’t climactic at all.
Brown: Bud reunites with Sissy and sees that she’s sporting a wicked black eye thanks to Wes. And because of this, Bud and Wes have to fight outside the bar, which Bud wins when bar security finds Wes tried to steal the $5,000 grand prize for winning the indoor rodeo and take him away. Sorry Bud, you’re not a hero for avenging the beaten woman. You beat her plenty of times, and you’re the valiant hero… why? Because you didn’t leave any clearly visible wounds? Garbage. People. Everywhere.
Froemming: The only saving grace of that ending was the Charlie Daniels Band performing “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Otherwise, all that ending told me was that Bud and Sissy are doomed to a future in their trailer, abusing one another until one of them ultimately leaves for good. It is not a happy ending for these two, no matter how much it tries to make it look like Bud has changed.
Brown: No, Charlie Daniels Band is the only saving grace of the entire movie. There is a moral to be learned from this movie: Don’t marry someone you met at a bar.
I could go on and on, but I’m all honky tonk’d out. Let’s get to two-steppin’. My puns are terrible.
Would You Recommend?:
Brown: Hell no. This movie bothered me more than “Highlander 2” did. I picked it as an homage to my lovely parents, hoping to discover if this movie had something to show on how to make a marriage work for over 30 years. The answer: Do the complete opposite of EVERYTHING Bud and Sissy do.
Froemming: You know what, despite this film being about the most garbage people I have ever seen on film, I would recommend it as a unique look into toxic relationships and of the times it was filmed. I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish with this film, but I think the end result was not what they had in mind.