Analyze That

Dec 18, 2002 at 12:00 am

“This is garbage. Tell them to change the channel.”

In a room full of fellow prisoners, mob leader Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), serving out a short sentence from his previous film, voices his disapproval for the popular mob-centered TV show “Little Caesar.” But that’s the least of his problems. It’s the silent late-night potshots by prison guards that are chewing up his mattress and peace of mind. He’s about to go over the edge, so he calls his favorite psychiatrist and comedic co-star, Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal).

Like Analyze This, the sequel is directed by Harold Ramis, with almost all the same writers on board (Peter Steinfeld subs for Kenneth Lonergan), along with many of the same tired jokes, and some new tired ones too. The storyline still hovers around those crass-mouthed bada-bing buddies, fond of baseball bats, duct tape, car trunks, not to mention pasta and firearms — guys who view inner conflicts over whacking and psychotherapy as a fatal sign of weakness. Whereas Analyze This brings two odd birds with father issues together, resulting in some genuinely funny lines and bits, Analyze That regurgitates and waters down many of the previous film’s successes, with a few new swings thrown in. Bickering between Sobel and his wife, Laura (Lisa Kudrow), which was at least mildly amusing in the first, is painful and old when it begins. For the film and the Sobels, the honeymoon is over.

I doubt it’s coincidental that the birth and life span of Analyze This and Analyze That is identical to HBO’s monstrous hit series “The Sopranos” — running from 1999 to now.

The two different projects focus on pulling the human from within the stereotype by sharing at least one identical theme — a major mobster suddenly suffers from halting effects that interfere with his way of life. Tony Soprano suffers from fits of passing out, whereas Paul Vitti has panic attacks. Both end up going to a shrink despite the inherent dangers; both get violent when they hear things they don’t want to hear from the doctors; both end up putting their psychiatrists’ lives at risk. The big difference is that “The Sopranos” seems to be filling in all those Mafioso character gaps left from years of sensationalized-to-sincere cinematic portrayals. The TV series glues together the Jeckyl and Hyde lifestyle — an “easy to associate with” family existence and an eye-for-a-head profession — with complex ethical traditions and newly emerging emotional conditions, like depression.

On the other hand, This and That have been made first and foremost for entertainment, and if a handful of insights just happen to slip in along the way, all the better.

Is it because we’re starving for action and misbehavior in our lives that we make TV and movie stars out of the criminal dregs of society? Or maybe we want to minimize our little everyday sins in the wake of indifferent brutality. Whatever the reason, the act of self-analysis in itself, even if it is fictional, is a sign of internal growth, and Analyze That continues to play with self-reflection and breaking out of the mold.

Vitti ends up using a mob show as a legit job facade, and an unwitting vehicle for his ulterior motives. Actor Anthony LaPaglia, who we’re accustomed to see playing hard-nosed characters, portrays an actor playing TV Mafia boss “Little Caesar” and asks Vitti for his expertise. When Vitti slugs LaPaglia out of frustration, putting him on the ground with a bloody nose, the actor takes the action as character-fodder, “That was bloody great! My character could do that.”

Analyze That does get the “one of the strangest scenes of the year” award. I’m just not used to seeing Robert De Niro break out into song. But I can live without hearing him say, “You, you’re good, you. I’m tellin’ you, you gotta gift,” again, and again, and again.

Like grade-school bullies finally realizing the repercussions of their heartless “if you want it, take it” mentality, the Mafia seems to be developing a conscience, at least on-screen. This could be bad news for those who feed on primal violence perpetuated by a survival-of-the-fittest animal instinct for their primary source of entertainment. According to the industry, wise guys have feelings too.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].