Analyze This
review by Carrie Gorringe, 5 March 1999

With the nearly-suffocating prevalence of irony in both entertainment and society these days, it’s hardly surprising that Robert De Niro, whose name is nearly synonymous (or perhaps eponymous) with portrayals of individuals whose penchants for criminal activity and/or sociopathic behavior (to whatever extreme), would decide to turn the guns on himself, if you’ll pardon the expression. One might also call De Niro’s decision somewhat overdue, since his last foray into the genre (as gambler Ace Rothstein in Casino) was in a film at once so over and underwrought that any inclusion of intentional irony (there was no shortage of the unintentional variety) would have been manna from heaven. Nevertheless, the prospect of handing over such a (mostly) venerable acting franchise to the likes of former Second-City madman Ramis, a director whose tendencies toward a lack of subtlety in comedic matters can simultaneously charm and induce the grinding of teeth, might have caused De Niro some sleepless nights (I submit Caddyshack and Groundhog Day as evidence – and, yes, I can say this, even as a fan of Ramis’s work).

Paul Vitti (De Niro) is a gangster with several problems, not the least of which have been several attempts to "whack" him by his main rival, Primo Sindone (Palminteri). Sindone has been jealously glowering for what seems like decades over Vitti’s "privileged" status as the son of a mob boss who is primed to take over the family business, and Sindone wants the glory for himself, hence the failed hits. Now, these threats on his life don’t faze Vitti one iota; after all, being the victim of a hit is, in Mafia terms, the equivalent of death by natural causes. Threats on his life are an annoyance, but he knows how to deal with them, or, rather, he would, if he didn’t keep having these damned panic attacks. But when these same anxieties prevent him from performing with his mistress…well, there’s only so much a guy can take.

Meanwhile, Vitti’s main enforcer, Jelly (Viterelli), has run into Dr. Ben Sobel (Crystal), a psychiatrist with his own set of problems: a smartass son, an impending marriage to the beautiful Laura (Kudrow) and a psychiatrist father who is better known than he. Sobel gives his business card to Jelly after having rear-ended Vitti’s Lincoln (complete with a soon-to-be stiff in the trunk). He is all contrition, offering to pay for the damage he has caused to Vitti’s car. So, when Vitti confides to Jelly that "a friend" needs some help for anxiety attacks, guess who goes on permanent call. Vitti is the patient Sobel can’t refuse, appearing everywhere, dragging the shrink out of bed on the flimsiest pretext, and otherwise making life intolerable for Sobel and his fianc¾ e (Kudrow). Vitti’s goals are precise and (naturally) unrealistic: Sobel has two weeks to cure Vitti of his anxiety, before a big mob meeting takes place and Vitti has to face down Sindone – providing that Sindone doesn’t get to Vitti first. Oh, yes, and then there’s the little matter of the FBI surveillance, led by one Agent Steadman (Weeks) and a reluctantly cooperative Sobel to add an interesting subtexture to the entire dilemma. Caught between two immovable objects, Sobel doesn’t know whom to resist.

The overall impression left after watching Analyze This is of a skillfully-crafted and smoothly-flowing satire of gangster films and the assumptions about character and crime that underlay them, although it is occasionally so pithy in detail that at times it plays like an overly-long sitcom. This observation, however, verges upon the unfair; granted, the film never goes too deeply into sociological observations of the underworld subculture (not that anyone should really expect it to do so), but it goes deeply enough for comfort and logical consistency. The dialogue and situations have been deftly interwoven to reveal the warp and woof of confusion and menacing uncertainty that is at the core of the humor in this film; witness the leagues of difference in understanding between Sobel’s concept of hitting a pillow to release frustration versus that of Vitti (maybe Vitti thinks that Sobel is an aggression-therapy advocate). It’s admittedly a simple pun, but an effective one. Then there is the sly takeoff of a scene involving oranges – ripped straight and shamelessly from the reels of The Godfather – and describing it further would dull its obviously insolent charm. The script doesn’t shy away from psychological development – a trait all too common in contemporary comedy; in fact, as the relationship between Vitti and Sobel progresses, and their common traits are revealed, the script has a tendency to veer somewhat dangerously toward the excessively maudlin; however, director Ramis never lets the film do more than skirt the edge: there’s just enough sorrow to throw the comedy into fresh relief and give it enough of a wash of depth to paper over the inevitable gaps in character that result from a comedy desperately trying to cram in all the nuances and plot developments (what there are of them) before the final reel.

Nevertheless, Analyze This succeeds in spite of itself, because it takes well-worn situations and motifs and runs them through the wringer without any hesitation or reverence. (Ramis has been quoted as saying that the film presents a warning to those who would join gangs of any sort; if this is so, the message had to have been buried in a subtext deeper than six feet under). Critics who have compared the humor in Analyze This to that in an average sitcom, then have asked why people would be willing to pay for what they can receive for free are missing the point: Let’s just avoid the obvious fiction of "free TV" (pace the National Association of Broadcasters), and concentrate on the essentials: the humor in this film occurs with all the subtlety of a Mack truck barreling down on someone at ninety-five m.p.h., but that doesn’t make the presentation any less effective. As any graduate of English Lit will tell you, there are only about twenty narrative structures known to mankind, so of course we’ve seen it all before, but it’s what the filmmakers do with the material that is the determining factor, and for fans of broad slapstick, or anyone who’s tired of the pompousness of gangster films of late, Analyze This is a breath of badly-needed (but not necessarily fresh) air. The comparison made by countless critics between this film and the HBO series, The Sopranos, is just another monotonous reworking of the old apples-oranges intellectual shell game; The Sopranos aims for irony, but the series’ scripts end up shooting themselves in the feet because the writers can’t figure out whether to just go for the yuks or to take the whole enterprise seriously: it’s cliché time, folks. Analyze This has no such illusions, and as such is the purer product.

The film’s success is due in no small part to the casting choices, most of which can be best summed up as a dovetailing of the conventional with an unconventional (or at least unexpected) twist or two. De Niro and Crystal play their respective parts with all the skill one expects from two professionals. Judging from the hilarious result, De Niro was not preoccupied with whatever so-called "damage" might have resulted from poking fun at himself. His precision comedic timing has been on display before, in films like We’re No Angels, even when it was ill-served by the material at hand; now, with no fetters on his talent, De Niro can chew away at the juicy script with glee, and he does (think of Paul Muni in Scarface with far fewer maniacal conniption fits and you have a rough sketch of Vitti’s character). Crystal rolls out his trademarked overburdened-nebbish-with-a-bite character and gives a first-rate demonstration not only of the advantages to be gained by playing straight man, but also of how difficult a position that is (though Crystal, a comedy master, doesn’t break a sweat or show a seam at any time during the proceedings). Palminteri, his on-screen thuggish persona long overdue for a tweaking or two, provides solid support as Vitti’s would-be successor. But it is Viterelli, with a face like a well-fed, if lugubrious, Shar Pei, who was perhaps the most inspired casting choice; his deadpan expression never changes, whether he’s armed with a pistol or advice. Never mind Vitti: Jelly’s the one you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. Kudrow brings spark to the largely auxiliary role of the whiny WASP fiancee. She hints at a darker side to the lady’s character; there’s a sense that she would take on Vitti herself if necessary, and probably come out the better of the two. Despite her angelic exterior, maybe she’s the one you don’t want to meet in the dark alley. In fact, Sindone probably couldn’t stand to do a couple of rounds with her; he’d die of frostbite in her presence within about five minutes or so.

Analyze This is a rarity for film comedy these days: simple, polished, if unreservedly over-the-top, and therefore unpretentious. It is a film you shouldn’t refuse if you love your comedy applied with a trowel, the threat of cement overshoes for nonattendance notwithstanding.

Read Gregory Avery's review of Analyze That.

Directed by:
Harold Ramis

Robert De Niro
Billy Crystal
Lisa Kudrow
Joe Viterelli
Chazz Palminteri
Jimmie Ray Weeks

Written by:
Peter Tolan
Harold Ramis
Kenneth Lonergan

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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