When hit men wore hats and Cadillacs had running boards, the average Mafia don could knock off the Tattaglia brothers in midafternoon and sit down to a nice plate of chicken cacciatora that evening, content that he'd seen to the family business and blazed a path for his first-born son's rise to the governorship. These days the poor buffone who's just annihilated his enemies doesn't dare think about work well done and a good meal with friends. First he's gotta drop by the shrink's office to discuss the unresolved traumas of his youth.
Don't believe it? Just ask James Gandolfini, who plays the deeply conflicted mobster at the heart of HBO's new hit series, The Sopranos. Yes, Tony Soprano sees a psychiatrist. Or check with Robert De Niro, a man who has played so many gangsters to such perfection in his movie career that real-life goodfellas can't help imitating him. In Harold Ramis's hit-and-miss mob farce Analyze This, De Niro is packing heat again, but this time his psychoanalyst gets equal billing. It's Billy Crystal, the featherweight comic, as the harried Dr. Ben Sobol.
This iconic madness, this jumbling of traditional tough-guy imagery, can likely be blamed on two men, neither of whom knows a Panaflex from a pound of prosciutto. When John Gotti, formerly the Teflon Don, finally went up the river, much of America's misguided love affair with the Mafia probably went with him. When a decrepit goombah named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante was found wandering the streets of Greenwich Village in a bathrobe and slippers, twilight-of-the-mob symbolism really triumphed -- at least in the popular imagination. Supplanted by Asian executioners and Russian extortionists, the Italian mob is said to be sleeping with the fishes. And in Hollywood Don Corleone is dead.
But for the backlash of parody. The overheated burlesque of last summer's Mafia!, a festival of fart jokes in which a bungling mob boss played by the late Lloyd Bridges was motivated by a hail of bullets to do the macarena, was one thing. Enlisting De Niro, the great movie gangster of our time, to shoot holes in his own myth is another. It's like signing up John Wayne to star in Blazing Saddles. Should we get all misty-eyed that the sun is setting on the button men of yore? Not necessarily. Analyze This won't win any Oscars, and its comedy is pretty tortured in places, but the pleasures of watching De Niro onscreen never diminish -- not even when he's putting the glories of his criminal past at risk. In Paul Vitti (note the rhythmic consonance with "John Gotti") he gives us one of his strangest character constructions, because that's what this strange comedy demands. His "Mr. V." must convince us he's one of New York's most powerful and feared mob chieftains (a drill De Niro certainly understands), and a quivering bundle of anxieties, without lapsing into cartoon cliches.
For the best of actors, this would be a challenge. For De Niro it looks like a piece of cake. Comedy may not be his forte, but comic shading is no problem. When his newfound (and very nervous) analyst explains that the mobster may be suffering from an Oedipus complex and starts talking about ancient patricide, Paul Vitti shoots back: "Fuckin' Greeks!" The sudden collision of psychobabble and street argot hits the spot, as it does through most of the proceedings. The unlikely pairing of Crystal and De Niro is a little like throwing Joan Rivers into the ring with Jake LaMotta. But director Ramis, whose previous contributions to the cinematic art include Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, is the right guy for the job if anybody is. He gives both actors enough room to stretch out without quite making fools of themselves in a storyline that doesn't bear much scrutiny. To wit: Stressed-out godfather embroils neurotic suburban psychiatrist in major mob war, then emerges as well-adjusted gangster.
No fewer than three screenwriters (playwright Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan, and Ramis) have had a hand in dropping a slain hit man off a Miami Beach balcony into a tray of salmon salad, in concocting a dream sequence where the shrink imagines himself as Marlon Brando in the famous fruitstand assassination scene from The Godfather, and in requiring the redoubtable De Niro to break into tears every time Paul Vitti thinks about his dead father.
The real pleasures of Analyze This lie in the easy confidence with which De Niro savages himself. He's big enough to take the hit and positively dwarfs Crystal from start to finish. Everyone else is window dressing. Friends star Lisa Kudrow does a largely thankless turn as the psychiatrist's bewildered fiancee whose wedding keeps getting interrupted by gunfire, and Bill Macy pops up as Crystal's self-absorbed father, a celebrity shrink who's given his kid a complex, too.
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Not surprisingly, De Niro's henchmen and his enemies have all been cast with an eye for the potato face and the double-parked nose, and an ear for fractured syntax. Joe Viterelli is quite wonderful as Paul Vitti's loyal, dogged bodyguard, Jelly, and Chazz Palminteri (Viterelli's castmate in Bullets over Broadway, among other things) has some nice moments as a rival mobster who yearns to be the capo de tutti capi.
Good luck, pal. The Italian mob may be in steep decline at the movies, at least for now. But the big boss still reigns. His name is De Niro, and even when he's laughing at himself we're compelled to pay attention.
Directed by Harold Ramis. Screenplay by Peter Tolan, Harold Ramis, and Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Bill Macy, Joe Viterelli, and Chazz Palminteri.