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Analyze This

Or better yet, don’t

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Harold Ramis.

Written by Peter Tolan, Harold Ramis, Ken Lonergan.

With Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow.

I like Billy Crystal -- he’s funny. If you recall the sidesplitting opening segments of Crystal-hosted Oscars, the ones where he is deftly edited into the Best Picture nominees (such as being sketched in the nude by Leonardo diCaprio), he magically disappears into whatever character he needs to create at the moment. His mimicry is even more impressive because he also manages to be hilarious. So whose bright idea was it to cast Crystal in a high-concept comedy as the straight man?

That was a rhetorical question, of course, with the obvious answer being some Hollywood suit. Analyze This is made by Warner Brothers, the studio which frequently makes movies simply by paying top dollar to top stars, and then apparently considering the creative process complete.

Analyze This certainly makes for a great pitch: Billy Crystal as a neurotic shrink psychoanalyzing Robert De Niro, an overstressed mafia don. To please the different audience segments, there is violence (frequent shootouts and corpses) and romance (Crystal’s character is all set to marry his girlfriend). To further assure the success of this particular cinematic product, we have director Harold Ramis, who has previously proved his mettle with directing perhaps the best high-concept comedy ever, the 1993 Bill Murray gem Groundhog Day.

The result is, obvious to all but the studio execs, an awful mess. Analyze This is never really funny; never engaging; the acting is wretched; the plot falls apart; the dialogue is stilted; the visuals are bland; Ramis’ direction feels phoned in; and humor is of the “Aren’t Italians and Jews funny?” variety. To top everything off, there is a large amount of gratuitous violence, all of which is presumably played for laughs; I say presumably, because none of it is really funny.

And then of course there’s that casting. The initial idea of casting comic Crystal as a straight man and De Niro, a veteran heavy, as the funny one, is initially appealing -- but half of this equation falls totally flat. Crystal is robbed of almost any chance to be funny by his shockingly straightforward part, and as the result, can only engage in a tiresome shtick. To be fair, there is a short scene toward the end of the movie where he is forced to impersonate a strong-tempered mafia boss, and there, given a character to play and a few funny lines, Crystal finally manages to become intermittently entertaining. Of course, even this scene is marred by poor writing, as when the shrink mangles the unfamiliar Italian word “consiglieri,” saying it as it’s spelled. Amusing, before you realize that he just heard this word, and never saw it written. The total effect of this gag, as well as most other gags in this movie, was akin to the filmmakers displaying a big screen caption saying, “We Think Our Audience Is All Idiots.”

Still, there is something to write home about in Analyze This. Robert De Niro holds his own, completely stealing the movie. No, he does more than that -- he makes this sorry excuse eminently watchable, because every second he’s on-screen (about two thirds of running time), he creates a real, living character, who is both smart and stupid, vicious and sympathetic, touching and really, really funny. De Niro usually acts in dramas, and for every electrifying part (Cape Fear), there’s a dull and boring one (Casino, Ronin).” In Analyze This, his comic talent comes to foreground, and as the result, provides this movie with at least something to alleviate the dreariness.

Memo to Warner Bros: High concept is not enough.