Analyze This
*** Stars
(US 1999)

Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Joe Viterelli, Chazz Palmintieri

Director:Harold Ramis

Writing credits: Ken Lonergan & Peter Tolan

Warner Bros. * 103 minutes

ANALYZE THIS, Harold Ramis' new gangster comedy, is that all-too-rare phenomenon -- a comedy that actually lives up to the promise of its trailer. Its concept -- a gangster with panic attacks who goes into therapy, is such a terrific high-concept idea, it's a mystery why no one thought of doing it sooner (The closest being the John Cusack classic, GROSSE POINTE BLANK). Even my companion, who usually assumes that anything I want to see is going to consist of a lot of talk, women in corsets, and skinny, tragic English guys with bad teeth in silly period clothes, was laughing loudly and frequently. This is the funniest gangster comedy since THE FRESHMAN.

Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro, in what at first deceptively appears to be a clone of his character in Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS) is one of New York's most powerful gangsters. Suddenly he finds himself unable to intimidate weaselly little guys into ratting out their friends, he has trouble sleeping, he has =ahem= romantic problems. The assorted characters in his entourage watch his deterioration with confusion. What kind of mobster has panic attacks?

Meanwhile, Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal) is a divorced suburban New York psychiatrist with father issues. He also has a smartassed young son (Kyle Sahiby) and a neurotic fiancee (Lisa Kudrow).

Ben's life changes when he rear-ends a car driven by Paul Vitti's bodyguard, the appropriately-named Jelly (Joe Viterelli). Vitti's people aren't interested in police intervention or insurance reports, but Ben gives Jelly his business card, just in case.

When Vitti mentions that he thinks he needs a "head doctor", the ever-loyal Jelly (who thinks he's referring to a plastic surgeon, until told otherwise) offers Sobol's card. Vitti visits Sobol's office, bribing his patient $300 to leave immediately, and demands that Ben cure his panic attacks -- except that they're not panic attacks, he says.

This premise sets up a barrage of one-liners, which Crystal and DeNiro parry like old friends. DeNiro masterfully both reproduces and spoofs every gangster role he's ever played, while Crystal somehow manages to keep his more whining, frenetic side under control. The crisp script by Ken Lonergan and Peter Tolan is loaded with so many clever verbal gags that it's easy to miss a few while the audience is still howling with laughter at the last one. The inevitable tribute to THE GODFATHER is dead-on-perfect, and threatens to do to that movie what the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc" did for Wagner's Ring Cycle. Additionally, a number of mob mysteries are debunked, such as the question of why mobsters, no matter how attractive their wives, always have mistresses: "So why do you have a girlfriend?" "Hey! My wife kisses my kids with that mouth!"

Oh. Okay. Thanks for clearing that up.

It's not easy to steal a movie right out from DeNiro's nose, but a few supporting cast members come very close, most notably the aforementioned Joe Viterelli. A hulking, lumpy, shambling mess of a man, his Jelly expertly garbles the English language, barely avoiding a wink or two at the audience while he does so. A more predictable near-theft comes from the always-wonderful Chazz Palmintieri as Vitti's arch-rival, Primo Sindone. After a bizarre phone call from Vitti (coached by Dr. Sobol), in which the latter wants to discuss how he FEELS about Primo killing his best friend, and about how he needs some "closure", Primo looks at his own henchman is if ordering a hit and says "Get a dictionary and find out what this 'closure' is." Anyone who's ever been in therapy or bought a self-help book will find plenty of cringe material here.

Perhaps the weakest link (and it's not all that weak) is Lisa Kudrow, who, while doing another of her perfect Teri Garr turns, has yet to show she can do anything else. She has a lovely, oval, Modigliani painting of a face; a Gwyneth Paltrow neck without the Paltrow snottiness; and portrays fluttery nerves like no one else in the business. She's great at this particular comedic schtick, but everything she's done (yes, including THE OPPOSITE OF SEX) is a variation on this character. I hope to see her portray something different in the future.

ANALYZE THIS is so close to a perfect comedy, with exactly the right mix of winking self-reference, one-liners, and real emotion, that its weak final half-hour is doubly frustrating. A scene, clearly designed to be an ad-lib opportunity for Billy Crystal, in which Dr. Sobol must pretend to be the Vitti family consiglieri, falls flat, and is followed by a completely gratuitous shoot-em-up, "action" scene. I couldn't help but think how much more amusing this scene would have been if instead, the table full of mob bosses were to "get in touch with their feelings" at once, led by the now-mob shrink in his shiny suit.

A minor quibble, really, as Harold Ramis again cements his place in the comedic firmament as the premier director of adult comedies -- a breath of fresh air in this season's film morass of decadent, malevolent teenagers.


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