movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Analyze This
Harold Ramis isn't a particularly innovative filmmaker, but he certainly knows what's funny. His newest movie, Analyze This, is one of the funniest movies of the past decade, with a good dozen belly laughs. Analyze This is also an old-fashioned yarn, akin to '30s comedies such as A Slight Case of Murder and Brother Orchid that made fun of the entire gangster genre. Likewise, it's easy to imagine a '30s-ish Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney in the lead role in Harold Ramis' new comedy. However, Ramis has a ringer of his own--Robert De Niro. No modern American actor is so closely tied to gangster movies as De Niro. His screen presence immediately recalls his work in The Godfather Part II, Casino, GoodFellas, The Untouchables, Mean Streets, and other gangster tales. Ramis and De Niro perfectly utilize DeNiro's own past in Analyze This by turning our expectations upside down.

De Niro plays a tough murderous mob boss, yes, but he's a troubled mob boss. Paul Vitti (De Niro) is not satisfied with his life and he doesn't know why. One day he thinks he's having a heart attack and his henchmen rush him to the hospital. But the doctor says it was probably just an "anxiety attack." After roughing up the doctor for suggesting something so outrageous, Vitti starts to wonder if he should talk to a psychiatrist: "God forbid someone hears I'm talkin' to a shrink. It could be interpreted the wrong way." He's nervous, he can't sleep, he can't breathe, and he has chest pains: "It's like he thinks he's going to die," says Jelly (Joe Viterelli in a very funny performance as Vitti's not-so-bright right hand man). So Jelly finds a psychiatrist, Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), and Vitti and Jelly barge into Sobel's office one day, insisting on an instant fix for Vitti's woes: "I got less than two weeks to get strong or they're going to eat me up," Vitti says, referring to the other mob bosses. Sobel doesn't want to help, but Vitti leaves him no choice: "You don't hear the word 'no' very often, do you?" asks Sobel. "I hear it all the time," says Vitti. "Only it's 'no, no, please, no!'"

Vitti doesn't really want to examine the demons in his closet. He wants Sobel to pronounce a quick cure and then he'll be on his way (in that respect, he's not much different than anyone else). He doesn't understand that for analysis to work he must talk about himself, his doubts, his fears, his family, his parents, etc. Vitti leaves each session hopeful that he's cured, but within a matter of hours later (even minutes), his troubles return--as well as chest pains, impotency, etc. So Vitti keeps running back to Sobel to tell him more lies and half truths while waiting for the instant fix.

Much of the comedy in Analyze This simply comes from the incongruity of a tough guy gangster struggling with his own feelings. Vitti doesn't even know how to cry, so when he does break down during a session with Sobel--after grabbing best-man Sobel from the middle of a marriage ceremony!--Vitti's sobs sound shrill and distorted (and funny). Billy Crystal as the psychiatrist mostly plays straightman while De Niro gets the punchlines. It's a strange situation for Crystal to be in--playing second-fiddle to another actor--however, many of the laughs depend upon Crystal's expressions and his body language. In that respect, his performance is almost as important as De Niro's.

Comedies such as Rushmore and There's Something About Mary are very much products of the late '90s. However, Analyze This could have come from virtually any decade of the sound era (although the psychoanalysis angle suggests a time frame no earlier than the late '40s). Director Harold Ramis approaches the subject in straight forward fashion--putting all the weight on the interplay of the two lead actors. Several other actors make valuable contributions--such as Lisa Kudrow as Dr. Sobel's fiancee, Bill Macy as Dr. Sobel's father, Chazz Palminteri as a mob boss itchin' to rub out Vitti, and the aforementioned Joe Viterelli as Jelly--but make no mistake about it: Analyze This is all about shocking the audience with tough guy De Niro playing off of his former image, while Billy Crystal struggles to understand Vitti's background.

In the final sequence, Crystal finally gets to cut loose as he impersonates a mob boss; however, this scene is also the weakest one in the entire movie. The scene is funny, yes, but it's also undisciplined. It finds Ramis in his anything-for-a-laugh mode (a kind of filmmaking that has frequently marred his career). But the rest of this movie is brillant, arguably the best filmmaking of Ramis' career.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]