One smells a high concept lurking behind Analyze This – a punchy, eccentric, one-line pitch of the sort that forms the basis for so many contemporary Hollywood confections.
Here's the concept: tough guy gangster Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) finds himself overcome by panic attacks that make him feel vulnerable, afraid and teary ("Put tits on me and I'd be a woman," as he so charmingly puts it).
So Vitti takes himself off to a shrink, Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) – and instantly commandeers the poor doctor's entire life just as he is about to marry the twittery Laura (Lisa Kudrow).
There's not much in this movie that cannot be easily predicted way in advance. Wedding scenes are repeatedly interrupted by gunfire and dead bodies falling from high places. Vitti alternately opens up under his on-the-run therapy, and then closes up. Sobel, supposedly the man with all the answers, also stands to learn a few things about himself. Laura keeps threatening to walk out once and for all.
Harold Ramis – whose one great, surprise moment as a director was Groundhog Day (1993) – knows that he can pepper the comic proceedings with occasional bursts of action and even a nod towards drama, without ever getting too serious. Anyone associated at any level with psychotherapy will find the film a hoot – as much for its handy clichés (Vitti's primal childhood trauma) and anachronistic nonsense (Sobel's spiel on the Oedipus complex) as for its occasional spot-on cracks at New Age wisdoms.
De Niro's fortunes as a comic actor have not always been bright. He is funniest when he plays relatively straight within humorous situations – as in Midnight Run (1988) or, far more blackly, The King of Comedy (1983). By contrast, his unrestrained attempt at burlesque mugging and gesticulation in We're No Angels (1989) contributed to the unmitigated disaster of that project.
His role in Analyze This is pitched somewhere between these extremes. It is in fact a little dispiriting for De Niro fans to see the star lend himself to such a flagrant self-parody. His brooding, menacing, powerhouse performances for Scorsese are here scaled down to a store of cute mannerisms. It is as if this great actor is being squashed into a sit-com format – and, unsurprisingly, the lightweight screenplay derives from a writer (Peter Tolan) with a television background.
However, even a diminished De Niro shames Crystal, who could never be accused of acting of any kind. He is the least physical of all current film comedians – in stark contrast to, say, Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful (1997). Crystal is a fast talker in the tradition of Bob Hope and Woody Allen – but even they were careful to cultivate a little screen presence. Crystal is more like a black hole – and his interaction with other cast members (especially Kudrow) is virtually non-existent.
Analyze This displays no ambition other than to fashion a dependable, adequately crafted, instantly forgettable entertainment – and on that level, it works pretty well. Those looking for a more innovative cocktail of sex, psychoanalysis, guns and glitter should hunt up Altman's Beyond Therapy (1987) immediately.
sequel: Analyze That
MORE Ramis: Bedazzled
© Adrian Martin March 1999