MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Robert De Niro (Paul Vitti), Billy Crystal (Ben Sobel), Lisa Kudrow (Laura MacNamara), Joe Viterelli (Jelly), Chazz Palminteri (Primo Sindone), Bill Macy (Isaac Sobel), Leo Rossi (Carlo Mangano), Kyle Sabihy (Michael Sobel), Rebecca Schull (Dorothy Sobel), Molly Shannon (Caroline)
I don't think it would be going out on a limb to say that Robert De Niro is the only actor in America who could have successfully pulled off the role of Paul Vitti in "Analyze This," a new film from Harold Ramis ("Groundhog Day"). The movie is a comedy, but the role of Paul Vitti requires someone to play it straight. De Niro was the perfect choice, as he is the kind of actor who looms large in the public's movie consciousness--he carries true weight on-screen, especially when he plays a role like Paul Vitti, a powerful New York mobster. De Niro has perfected the art of the tough guy Mafioso, having played different variations of the character in "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "The Untouchables" (1987), "GoodFellas" (1990), and "Casino" (1995). It is arguably what he does best, and he brings all his acting prowess to this role, creating a man who is tough, hard, and completely sure of himself.
Of course, the central joke of "Analyze This" is that all those characteristics that we take for granted in a character like Paul Vitti are beginning to corrode him emotionally. Simply put, he's got stress. When you think about it, being a mobster is a high-stress occupation, and it's a wonder more of them don't die of heart attacks. Suffering from sudden onslaughts of breath-wheezing anxiety attacks and finding himself crying at long distance commercials, Paul realizes he is in more dangerous territory than an enemy's neighborhood after dark. Paul's entire lifestyle is built on intimidation, so how is he to continue on with his violent trade if he's confused and emotionally unstable?
Enter Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), a private practice psychiatrist who has the misfortune of being hired (more like intimidated) to counsel Paul in therapy. Having made his career playing neurotic, questioning characters who somehow come through in the end, Crystal makes Ben into a mild-mannered soul who finds himself in the most extreme of circumstances, and he reacts in any number of ways. When Paul asks Ben to help him, Ben's reply is, "So you want me to help you become a happy, well-adjusted gangster?" Paul, of course, doesn't see the irony.
"Analyze This," which was written by Ramis, Peter Tolan, and Ken Lonergan, is a hilariously smart movie, one that finds just the right laugh time and time again by playing off accepted movie conventions associated with Mafia lore. With the exception of the Western, gangster flicks comprise the most enduring cinematic genre, and people never seem to get tired of them. Hence, most moviegoers have an astoundingly adept sense of movie gangsterdom, which Ramis and his stars use to their advantage. For instance, when Ben accidentally rear-ends a Lincoln being driven by two of Paul's cronies, the trunk flies open and--surprise, surprise--there's someone tied up in the bottom. It's an unexpected gag, but at the same time, it's exactly what you should expect given the situation, which is what makes the gangsters' reaction to the situation so funny.
The dialogue in the film crackles with the predictably expletive-laden gangster lingo, and the screenplay makes adept use of contrasting the Mafia's style with Ben's normal, everyday life. This is a fish-out-water story going both ways, with Crystal's character trying to adapt his life to constant intrusions by Mafia cronies and De Niro's character swimming somewhat helplessly in a sea of Freudian psychology and 90s-style feel-good therapy (just watch his response when Ben tries to explain what an Oedipus Complex is).
Just as Ben's attempts to marry his girlfriend, Laura (Lisa Kudrow), are constantly jeopardized by the untimely arrivals of his new client, Paul's need to attend a huge meeting of gangsters from all over the country is threatened by his emotional problems. Questions start popping up in Mafia circles about why he is always being seen with this psychiatrist, and when Paul takes Ben's advice about seeking "closure" with his arch rival, Primo (Chazz Palminteri), he causes more trouble than it's worth since Primo doesn't understand that kind of jargon. "I want you to get a dictionary and find out what this closure is," Primo demands to one of his minions.
"Analyze This" has a number of memorable scenes, including a dream sequence that is a shot-for-shot imitation of the scene in "The Godfather" (1972) where Marlon Brando is shot in the street while buying fruit. In the dream, Crystal plays the part of Brando and De Niro stands in for John Cazale's Fredo. The punchline, however, is when Ben later tells Paul about the dream, and Paul is dismayed to find out that he played the role of the weak-minded Fredo. "I was Fredo?" he asks incredulously. "I don't think so." The joke is not only about Paul's egocentric vision of himself as a strong-minded tough guy, but in the confirmation of what we've assumed all along: Mafia guys are intimately familiar with "The Godfather."
And that, if anything, is the ultimate strength of "Analyze This" and why it is so effective as a comedy. Ramis knows to play the movie straight, and he doesn't force the laughs down our throats. He and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh ("The Piano") shot the film in the same style that any Mafia movie would be filmed, and it is populated with rough character actors like the overweight, craggy-faced Joe Viterelli as Jelly, Paul's right-hand man. There are a few scenes that feel like something right out of a Scorsese film, which underlies the thin line between the drama and the comedy of the gangster lifestyle. The fact is, all Mafia films teeter on the ridiculous--it's in their nature. "Analyze This" simply uses what was already inherent in the material to sublime comic effect.
©1999 James Kendrick