Saturday, April 9, 2011

Analyze This Movie Review: De Niro as The Godfather of Comedy

This review was first published in the Connecticut College Voice in March 1999.

Listening to a mobster unload his emotional stress to a psychotherapist is not a particularly new concept. Currently, there is an HBO series called “The Sopranos” in which a mobster occasionally visits an analyst, and two years ago, we watched as John Cusack, portraying a hitman, found himself by talking to a psychiatrist in Grosse Pointe Blank. So, it should come as no surprise that director Harold Ramis’s newest comedy, Analyze This, concerns a panicked Robert De Niro seeking help from psychiatrist Billy Crystal.

De Niro plays Paul Vitti, a John Gotti-like New York Mafia boss who finds himself overcome with anxiety attacks and unexpected floods of tears. This is an unacceptable state to be in for a man of his profession. His friends and enemies are like animals – they sense weakness and move in for the kill. By a stroke of fate, Ben Sobol (Crystal) is chosen as the man to help him. Needless to say he is reluctant at first.

The comedy is kept up with a consistency that should be applauded. Ramis is more than capable as a director of comedy. The laughs build and culminate into a climactic scene of sheer hilarity in which Ben is made to pose as counsel to the Vitti family before a meeting of the heads of all the major families. Crystal eases himself into the character and then has a blast playing a Jew playing a Sicilian, and as usual, steals the scene. But because this is a scene that is clearly designed to showcase Crystal’s impeccable comic timing, he can only steal it from himself. It wouldn’t surprise me if Crystal himself had a hand in the conception of this scene.

De Niro doesn’t do comedy very often, but he has a talent for it. He doesn’t just go for the punch line, instead he allows the nature of his character to provide the laughs. He doesn’t simply do a gangster thug performance, that’s not what this movie is about.  What we see before us is De Niro doing Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas or Sam Rothstein in Casino.

This is a very different film from Grosse Pointe Blank but the comparison is warranted in certain instances. Grosse Pointe Blank was a black comedy with moments of brutal violence. Analyze This is a light comedy with moments of cartoon violence. Naturally that fits for the tone of this film. In the Cusack film, the comedy is sharp and full of wit and irony. I hesitate to call the comedy here lowbrow, but it is definitely more mainstream. I appreciate mainstream humor as much as anyone (There’s Something About Mary anyone?), but I would have preferred the kind of wit and sarcasm that really grabs you, forcing you to appreciate the writing.

Chazz Palminteri, Oscar nominated for his comedic turn in 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, has some good moments in a another supporting role as a mob man, this time a rival Mafia boss. Lisa Kudrow, praised and awarded for her work in last year’s The Opposite of Sex, shows yet again that she has a true gift for comedy as Ben’s fianc√©e. And Joe Viterelli as Vitti’s muscle man, Jelly, has a face and attitude that were created to play a Mafia thug.  His deadpan delivery is perfect for this role.

It’s obvious that the screenwriters are not scholars on Freud’s psychological theories. The psycho-babble is nearly elementary. Vitti suffers from a repressed Oedipal Complex, among other Freudian neuroses. This can be forgiven, because it’s not a film about psychoanalysis, it’s a comedy about a Mafia boss who cries like a baby.

There is a hilarious dream sequence in which the Vito Corleone assassination attempt scene from The Godfather is recreated shot-for-shot with Crystal as Don Corleone and De Niro as Fredo, who fumbles the gun, unable to protect his father. The tough Vitti responds, “I was Fredo?  I don’t think so.”  The scene pays homage to that great masterpiece of Mafia films, because without it, we wouldn’t be able to laugh at a film such as this.

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