California Literary Review

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Analyze This, #73

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June 7th, 2012 at 12:05 am

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Movie Still: Analyze This

Robert De Niro plays Paul Vitti, a mob boss suffering from panic attacks.
Billy Crystal is his psychiatrist, Dr. Sobel. (1999-R)

© Warner Bros

If not for The Sopranos, we would have appreciated Analyze This a whole lot more.

HBO’s landmark series hit the airwaves in January 1999. It told the tale of a mob boss haunted by mother issues and paralyzed by panic attacks who decides to consult a shrink. Some regard it as the best television show ever.

Two months later, Analyze This came to theaters, telling the tale of a mob boss paralyzed by panic attacks who decides to consult a shrink. One change—rather than mother issues, this guy has father issues.

The Sopranos is a storytelling feast. By comparison, Analyze This is a bag of French fries.

But you know what? Sometimes a bag of French fries is just fine. Analyze This grossed $177 million worldwide, which suggests that a lot of people enjoy an entertaining little trifle of a movie. Or fast food.

The film succeeds because of strong performances by its two stars. Veteran comic actor Billy Crystal is perfectly cast as nebbishy New York psychiatrist Ben Sobel. He’s got a roster of whiny patients. His standoffish father (Bill Macy) is a more renowned headshrinker than Ben is. Dr. Sobel’s consolation is that he’s about to marry a blond television reporter (Lisa Kudrow) several miles out of his league.

Into his life walks Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro, doing an obvious send-up of former New York mob boss John Gotti). Vitti is a feared killer, but he has developed a problem. His hands shake when he’s about to club an informer. Then he finds himself bawling uncontrollably at a sappy commercial. Neither is acceptable behavior in his line of work.

De Niro plays Vitti as a satire of his many mob roles. In a comic turn that foreshadows his work in Meet the Parents, he’s relaxed and subtle, but with a glimmer of menace. He’s the peacock in the flashy suits you’ve seen in Casino, and he’s still got the trademark De Niro smirk.

Analyze This works best when these two fine actors play off the culture clash between them. When Dr. Sobel invites the Mafia don to release his aggressions by “hitting” a nearby pillow, Vitti takes out a Smith & Wesson and fires six bullets through the upholstery.

“What is my goal here?” the good doctor asks. “To make you a happy, well-adjusted gangster?”

The movie flags a bit when it concentrates on two subplots—one about Dr. Sobel’s wedding (which the gangster keeps interrupting with his various emotional crises) and another about internecine mob battles. We did, however, enjoy the always-great Chazz Palminteri as Vitti’s main power rival, Primo Sidone.

In one scene, Vitti, all loaded up on psychiatric mumbo-jumbo, tries to make peace with Primo over the phone. The conversation, of course, disintegrates into insults and threats. “Get a dictionary,” Primo tells his aide after slamming down the phone. “Find out what this ‘closure’ thing is. If that’s what he’s going to hit us with, I want to be ready.”

While the general plot may be so-so, director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day) knows how to play the story for laughs without falling into silliness. The interplay between De Niro and Crystal is terrific and several scenes will prompt you to chuckle out loud. In one, the two men happen to be caught in an ambush when De Niro’s Vitti has his emotional catharsis.

“Paul,” shouts the panicked Dr. Sobel as he dodges bullets, “you have to channel all this nice grief into a murderous rage.”

Good stuff in a frothy film. The trick is to watch it and not compare it to The Sopranos.

HIT: The late actor Joe Viterelli is marvelous as Jelly, Paul Vitti’s faithful and long-suffering sidekick. Viterelli has a subtle humor, and he certainly has the look and voice of a Mafiosi. A successful New York businessman, Viterelli was coaxed into showbiz at age 52. Before dying in 2004, he appeared in 26 films, almost always as a mobster.

MISS: De Niro has three sobbing fits during the movie. We understand the premise, but there’s still something unseemly and unconvincing about watching De Niro blubber.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Part of the pleasure of it is the way it carries you along from joke to joke. It’s a movie that just doesn’t have to try too hard, a dem-dese-and-dose comedy that’s also surprisingly—and pleasingly—light.”
—Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

GOOF: Analyze This makes a point of showing an FBI raid on the infamous 1957 mob summit in Apalachin, N.Y. In fact, while local and state police busted the meeting of more than 100 goodfellas, the FBI was absent. That’s because J. Edgar Hoover denied the existence of the Mafia—right up until that summit.

REALITY CHECK: Crystal’s character of Dr. Ben Sobel is as obviously Jewish as Jerry Seinfeld. So what’s with the conversation about how his son believed in Santa Claus?

REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: It will always elicit a few laughs, but there are probably better options on TV most of the time.

DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Dr. Sobel’s dream scene in which he imagines himself being gunned down in the street exactly as Don Vito Corleone was in The Godfather, while buying oranges at a fruit stand. In the sequence, Vitti represents his hapless son, too inept to save him.

Afterward, the doctor describes the dream to Vitti.

“You mean, I was Fredo?!” the mobster says. “I don’t think so!”

CASTING CALL: Martin Scorsese turned down an offer to direct this film.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Nothing to shock any viewer over age 12.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Every New York City restaurant location used in Analyze This was the site of a well-known, real-life mob hit.

BEST LINE: Dr. Sobel, trying to impersonate a gangster to a roomful of mob bosses: “My name is Ben Sobel . . . -lioni. Ben Sobellioni. I’m also known as, uh, Benny the Groin, Sammy the Schnozz, Elmer the Fudd, Tubby the Tuba and, once, as Miss Phyllis Levine.”

“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The ER doctor who tells Paul Vitti that he’s had a panic attack is played by Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. You might also recognize Mandvi as Mr. Aziz from Spider-Man 2.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The dark comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. John Cusack plays a freelance hit man who flubs his assignments after developing a conscience. His psychiatrist advises him to get back to his roots by attending his 10th-year high school reunion.

BODY COUNT: Four—one tossed seven stories into a platter of poached salmon at the Sobel wedding.

***

Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies

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