Analyze This (1999)

D: Harold Ramis
S: Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal

Enjoyable comedy from Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Multiplicity) surprisingly low on concept but high on solid comic characterisation and one-liners until its misjudged final reel where both fall short of providing a satisfying resolution. Gangster Robert De Niro suffers an emotional crisis following the murder of an old family friend. He reluctantly turns to psychiatrist Billy Crystal, who is not thrilled with the idea of making his patient into a "happy, well-adjusted gangster." Between them they uncover a wealth of patrimonial anxiety, and both learn something from the experience. It's a thin premise stretched well beyond its limits by the demands of a feature film, but with De Niro and Crystal in great form, it hardly matters. Both deliver knockout performances, and fans of both or either will get all the mileage they need from seeing them ply their trade with skill and ease.

The script (written by a small committee and of course embellished by its stars) consists mostly of inventing a series of situations where the generically mismatched leads are placed in proximity to one another at inappropriate moments. Having Crystal's character on the point of a second marriage (to Lisa Kudrow) provides adequate opportunity for this, and it becomes obvious very quickly that this particular sub-plot is going nowhere important and is at best an excuse for a female presence in this masculine world. The primary thematic concern of the picture is with issues of fatherhood and patrimonial angst, with De Niro masking a deep-seated guilt about his father's death and Crystal battling against his own dominant dad in another of the writers' weak attempts at sub-plotting. There is evidence of prerelease tampering to boot, especially in the vague references to De Niro's own son which suddenly assume heightened significance near the climax as if there has been some sort of build up which we haven't seen which explains their relationship (and Crystal's knowledge of it). In many ways it's a miracle that things work out as well as they do given these difficulties, but the fissures finally begin to tell in the final scenes where simply because it provides a moment for Crystal to hold centre stage without De Niro, a bizarre confrontation between the psychiatrist and the mob provides the film with its climax.

Still, it is difficult to resist its charm, which is entirely rooted in the strong characters and the matching performances. They may have little enough to do in terms of narrative, but De Niro and Crystal play well against each other (which is even more surprising than how well De Niro played against Charles Grodin in Midnight Run). The former brings his long experience playing criminal types and straight drama to a subtly self-effacing emotional mobster. The latter is likable without being saccharine, and does a nice line in repressed rage and frustration. They are backed well by Joe Viterelli as De Niro's henchman, who acts as a brilliant go-between both for the actors and the characters. He bridges the gap between the two with humour and sincerity, and in many ways is the film's most important conceit. Kudrow has little enough to do as Crystal's bride-to-be except fire off one or two nice salvos and then disappear into the background. She certainly gets a much more raw deal than she did in The Opposite of Sex, and it is again an indication of the script's weakness that it fails to make better use of her. Chazz Palmanteri has some good moments as a rival gangster, and is the only thing which saves the climax from becoming puerile.

As director, Ramis keeps the action moving well, and he does get to have fun restaging the attempted murder of Don Corleone from The Godfather in a dream sequence. There is plenty of material for him to work with here in terms of exploiting generic clichés, and this moment ensures that the audience is in on the joke (De Niro's reaction when Crystal tells him about it is priceless). Mob comedies don't always work (Andrew Bergman's The Freshman was the last good one), and this one could easily have gone badly wrong, but clever choices, some good dialogue and solid casting have saved the day. Ramis has emerged as a consistently entertaining maker of comedies since his early days as a writer and performer in the likes of Stripes and Ghostbusters and it is impossible to wish him ill given that for all its faults, Analyze This is still superior to the average genre fare and more genuinely funny. It is worth seeing, though it has perhaps been too heavily hyped for its own good.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.