There’s a wonderfully telling scene in Analyze This, when psychiatrist Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) has a dream about his mobster patient, Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), and they’re recast in a scene from The Godfather where Don Corleone stops to buy fruit from a street vendor and is shot in the back while his ineffectual son, Fredo, waits in the car.
When Dr. Sobel earnestly tells Vitti the dream, trying to get to the heart of Vitti’s repressed guilt feelings about the death of his own Mafioso father, De Niro gives his reply with typical tough-guy aplomb: No way would he ever be Fredo. The in-joke is that De Niro played the young Corleone in Godfather II, but it also demonstrates what Analyze This does best: contrasting the characters’ language and personal styles, namely the ambiguity of psychoanalysis with the braggadocio of the Mafia – at least as portrayed in the movies.
Director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) made a wise choice by not making Analyze This just another lame spoof. Instead, he milks humor from the culture clash of two diametrically opposed men.
De Niro’s Vitti, a powerful Manhattan crime boss, is losing heart for his violent profession. He’s not only having panic attacks, but finds himself weeping uncontrollably at sentimental television commercials. Crystal’s Sobel is anticipating his wedding to Laura (Lisa Kudrow), which his famous psychiatrist father is skipping in favor of a book tour. (It’s no surprise that Sobel the younger has established a low-key, home-based family therapy practice.)
Anxiety over an upcoming mob gathering, as well as his increasing inability to protect himself from an aggressive rival (Chazz Palminteri), lead Vitti to seek therapy and, to Sobel’s dismay, demand quick results.
Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal ideally play off their established images – and each other – and the crackling script by Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan and Ramis proves that mainstream entertainment doesn’t need to insult the audience’s intelligence to get laughs.
HBO’s complex, seriocomic "The Sopranos" shows a mobster in long-term therapy, while Analyze This compresses and heightens situations, then aims squarely at the funny and hits a bull’s-eye.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].