Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 5, 2002
Analyze That
Starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. Directed by Harold Ramis. Written by Peter Steinfeld, Harold Ramis, and Peter Tolan. Rated R.
The Docand the Don

Crystal and De Niro returnin Analyze That, but the humor leaves halfway through.


Is it possible to feel sorry for a flick that had as much success as Analyze This? The film got generally positive reviews and made $100 million on a relatively small budget. Billy Crystal showed himself as adept a straight man as he is a funny man, and De Niro’s deft performance keyed an entire phase of his career, as Scorsese’s favorite leading man reinvented himself as a comedic actor. Yet the movie came out roughly two months after the first episode of The Sopranos aired. That audacious, brilliant tv program took the same premise as the movie (a mobster in psychotherapy) and created an operatic, wide-ranging, densely layered epic full of troubling implications and humor in equal measure. Analyze This couldn’t carry the show’s cannoli, and in March 1999, HBO viewers and the tv-savvier film critics knew it.

Now everyone knows it. While the movie made a tidy profit, the tv show went on to capture the public imagination. There’s little that the big-screen sequel, Analyze That, can do except acknowledge the tv show in one way or another. Thus, when former mob boss Paul Vitti (De Niro) gets out of prison and tries to land a legitimate job, he becomes a consultant on a Mafia-themed tv show whose logo bears a distinct resemblance to that of The Sopranos. He’s outraged to learn that the show’s leading man is an Australian actor of Italian descent named Anthony Bella (played by real-life Australian actor of Italian descent Anthony LaPaglia). Putting these two together was a tremendous idea. The scenes between them suggest a cartoon character reflected in a funhouse mirror, as Vitti finds his moves being copied by a doppelganger in the form of an Aussie bloke.

Sadly, that idea’s potential never pans out, as Analyze That goes in a much more conventional direction. It starts with Vitti serving his time in prison, where he’s treated with the same respect that he got on the outside until he learns that a contract has been put out on him. To get away from danger, he pulls a Vinny “The Chin” Gigante and feigns mental illness so he can be released into the custody of his psychiatrist, Dr. Ben Sobel (Crystal). Sobel doesn’t want custody, but the feds have to put him in charge because, otherwise, there’d be no movie. Meanwhile, Vitti tries to adjust to normal life and at the same time figure out who wants him dead.

The film starts off pretty well. It hits a note of demented inspiration in a scene where Vitti proves his insanity by standing on a table and belting out Broadway show tunes in the middle of a prison riot. You can feel the early comic energy flickering and dying during the sequence where Vitti makes unsuccessful attempts at selling cars, running a restaurant, and selling jewelry. His reactions to these situations are properly gauche but not funny.

The film never regains its stride after that. Director/co-writer Harold Ramis isn’t made for sequels, as if Ghostbusters II and Caddyshack II weren’t proof enough of that. He’s much better at conceiving original movie ideas than he is at inventing new things for old characters to do. Analyze This had the mobster learning to express his emotions and the shrink learning to display some moxie. In Analyze That, Ramis and his two co-writers can’t think of anything to do for the sequel except run the actors through the same scenario again. Once more, Crystal underplays shrewdly and De Niro finds some innovative angles to the comic business that he’s given. Still, their rapport is played out because these characters can’t surprise each other anymore.

The supporting players could have brought out some undiscovered layers in the two stars; Lisa Kudrow and Joe Viterelli return as Ben’s high-maintenance wife and Paul’s faithful right-hand man, respectively. Expectedly, they’re not given anything to do, beyond delivering the occasional wisecrack, and while they’re certainly good at that, they could have done much more if they’d been allowed to. The movie also reunites De Niro with his Raging Bull co-star Cathy Moriarty-Gentile as the head of a prominent mob family. Unfortunately, their scenes together are so flat that they come across as a gimmick.

The filmmakers are probably wise to keep their comedy light and not try to match The Sopranos by taking the premise seriously, even though the spirit of David Chase could have inspired Analyze That in other ways. If the movie had spent more time on the set of its fictitious tv show, paired up Vitti with his actor clone Anthony Bella, and given Sobel his own separate subplot nearby, it could have commented on Hollywood’s relationship with the mob in a crazy, postmodern, self-referential way. That would have been far more interesting than the intermittently amusing retread that we get.

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