First it was volcanoes. Then it was asteroids. Now it's frickin' gangster comedies. Whether the tendency for Hollywood to release similarly themed films around the same time is a result of inter-studio espionage, or merely the collective subconscious at work, is something parapsychologists have yet to decide. Until then, we'll just have to get used to it. So, following both the Hugh Grant Mob-com Mickey Blue Eyes and supoib TV show The Sopranos, comes Harold Ramis' Analyze This.
The similarities to The Sopranos in particular are numerous: both involve an East Coast don who has a nervous breakdown and goes to a psychiatrist; both combine comedy with violence; and both make witty, knowing references to popular gangster movies. But the comparisons should really stop there. The Sopranos is first and foremost a TV drama, while Analyze This is primarily a Hollywood comedy. And it's certainly a successful one.
As the emotionally fragile thug Paul Vitti, De Niro provides what has to be his best comic performance yet, taking a familiar, stereotypical role, then perfectly exploiting its comic spin. We're used to seeing him play menacing hoods, so when Vitti suddenly bursts into tears and starts whining like a toddler, you're shocked into giggling. Then, of course, there are the gangster-flick references - including an excellent Godfather in-joke - which are given a strange resonance when uttered by the one-time Vito Corleone.
But, most significantly, De Niro provides the perfect foil to Billy Crystal's twitchy headshrinker. Crystal may only be repeating his usual, wise-cracking comedy schtick, but at least he's on top form in Analyze This, with the funniest and most effective moments coming during the therapy sessions. Sobol wants out, but is given little choice, as a quick dip in a shark tank reminds the psychiatrist. There's also the problem of how exactly he can help the crime boss: "What is my goal here?" he asks at one point. "To make you into a happy, well-adjusted gangster?" Sobol tries to treat Vitti like any other patient, but this is a task which becomes difficult, even dangerous, when he tries to explain certain psychoanalytical concepts, like Freudism. What starts out as a reasonable attempt to get to the root of Vitti's problems ends with the agitated crook shouting: "Well, Freud's a sick fuck!"
These smart comic exchanges should be savoured because, sadly, the rest of the movie's a little muddled. The outbreaks of violence are uncomfortably intense and don't sit well with the jokes, while the climactic slapstick shootout is both inappropriate and - worst of all - not funny. But gangster movie enthusiasts will appreciate the references, while those who demand quality comedy won't be disappointed by the central De Niro/Crystal exchanges.
Anyone who ever doubted De Niro's ability to do comedy should certainly check this out. He and Crystal make the perfect gag tag-team in a sharp, darkly hilarious peek at mobster mentality, which, despite its flaws, should at least leave you smiling.