starring Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Chazz Palminteri
screenplay by Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis and Ken Lonergan
directed by Harold Ramis
by Bill Chambers Robert De Niro is not a comedian. He used this to his advantage in what is arguably his best performance, as The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin. In that 1982 media-age satire from Martin Scorsese, a film that becomes more prophetic with each passing year, Pupkin is a struggling comedian obsessed with talk-show host Jerry Langford (a self-parodying Jerry Lewis) and the thought of appearing on his program. Pupkin's routines, however, are painfully unfunny; moreover, he is blithely unaware of their mediocrity. That his jokes don't sound like they were written to bomb (they're like warmed-over Henny Youngman one-liners) is because of De Niro's desperate delivery--the actor has awful comic timing in his bones.
As Paul Vitti, the head of a mafia family in Analyze This, De Niro sends up his Goodfellas and Casino characters mostly by playing it straight: When plunked into a veritable comedy, that mobster mien becomes considerably more ridiculous. Vitti is having anxiety attacks over his station in life and an upcoming meeting with the heads of "the five families." He seeks counsel from Dr. Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal, seeking redemption in this post-City Slickers 2/Forget Paris/Father's Day/My Giant era), a psychiatrist engaged to marry the lovely Laura (Lisa Kudrow), a T.V. reporter. Vitti, a caricature of John Gotti, panics Ben at first, but he loosens up and agrees to help upon realizing they share father issues. Vitti's request that he be "cured" in two weeks, though, puts a wrench in Ben's nuptials, natch.
Analyze This takes more intelligent potshots at the gangster sub-genre than, say, last year's Mafia!, but it doesn't attempt to mimic the baroque visuals of The Godfather films or Once Upon A Time In America. (One reason I so adore Mel Brooks's hilarious Young Frankenstein is that it actually looks and feels like an old Universal horror.) Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography is full of missed opportunities: Vitti's world should appear tantalizing, elegant, and slightly foreboding--to Ben and to us. Even the Italian restaurant used in a sequence that pays homage to the original Godfather looks as generic as the pizza parlour on "Everybody Loves Raymond".
The screenplay-by-committee is similarly underachieving. The concept is so good, so utterly pitch-worthy, that someone else got there first: The film bears a remarkable resemblance to the approach of HBO's weekly smash "The Sopranos". Unlike that show, Analyze This makes the mistake of anchoring its whole story on an amusing but thin premise. It lacks meat on its bones: that's why the film is half over before Dr. Sobol officially agrees to take on his special patient; that's why there are not one but two wedding sequences, both involving Ben and Laura (!); that's why Chazz Palminteri's role consists of shouting "I'm gonna get that son of a bitch Vitti!". (He's a crashing bore (er, boor)--Palminteri (Hurlyburly) is a good actor in dire need of new shtick.) The movie really falls apart in its final third, because the surprising chemistry between Crystal and De Niro has carried it through, and suddenly the climax finds Crystal flying solo in a flat and endless and borderline offensive Italian burlesque. The Academy Awards notwithstanding, Crystal is always funnier playing off a co-star. As an aside, the relationship between Crystal and his precocious son sadly remains mostly unexplored at the expense of plot. Kudrow, alas, is also squandered in a "girlfriend" role she's too damn good for these days.
If I remember Analyze This as a good time it'll be due to De Niro and Crystal's aforementioned rapport. Crystal, who truly gives zingers their zing, is granted genuinely witty comebacks to De Niro's numerous threats. (One can practically hear the Catskills rimshots.) Gratifyingly, they both begin the film playing stereotypes but end up as flesh-and-blood protagonists. The film, too, features outstanding supporting work from Joe Vitarelli as Vitti's right hand man, Jelly. Lastly, although the script is very flawed, it's at least as profane as the genuine mob movie article--"Larry Sanders" refugee Peter Tolan was surely the one who liberally peppered Analyze This with "fucks." Hearing De Niro use the word is old hat, but hearing the squeaky-clean Crystal repeat the word is kind of a scream.