For years, the Mafia was supposedly little more than a rumor, a figment of Hollywood's imagination; even J. Edgar Hoover claimed it didn't exist. Today, Cosa Nostra's supposedly on its last legs, a victim of FBI technology and RICO statutes. John Gotti's taking an extended vacation courtesy of the federal government, and so is just about everybody he ever talked to. The rest have gone legit. In fact, it's rare to run into a Mafioso these days who doesn't have a book or movie deal; publishers and producers keep making them offers they can't refuse. More and more, the books and movies about the Mafia have taken on a valedictory air. Mario Puzo's The Last Don, Coppola's Godfather III, Scorsese's GoodFellas and Casino--they're all basically about the Mafia waving bye-bye. Urban cowboys, Mafiosi have been wrestled into submission. And the question for those of us who love Mafia movies is whether they, like the Western, will now ride off into the sunset. Fuhgedaboudit. At the very least, Mafia movies intend to dance on their own grave, have a little fun on the way out. I've been watching HBO's "The Sopranos," a remarkable series whose very title suggests that the fat lady is about to sing the Mob's swan song. Homer's Iliad set in a New Jersey suburb, "The Sopranos" can be as violent as hell, but it's also a touching domestic dramedy, the final word in the domestication of the Mafia. Instead of The Family, the family--the Sopranos, an all-too-American family that has less in common with the Corleones than with the Simpsons. When you get right down to it, James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano is just your average dad, a middle-management type with more headaches than he knows what to do with. In fact, it's Tony's headaches and other stress-related symptoms that set the show's central premise in motion. Suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony starts seeing a psychiatrist. That also happens to be the premise behind Analyze This, an often enjoyable comedy starring Robert De Niro as a Mob boss who needs to get in touch with his feelings and Billy Crystal as a psychiatrist who, against his better judgment (not to mention his will), takes De Niro's Paul Vitti on as a client. How we wound up with two Wiseguy-Needs-To-Have-His-Head-Examined movies at the same time is anybody's guess; great minds shrink alike, I suppose. But it's an undeniable source of pleasure when guys who can barely put two words together sign up for the Talking Cure--Sigmund Freud meets Sammy "the Bull" Gravano. Other than rage, lust and greed, Mafiosi aren't really known for having emotions, let alone sharing them, but who knows? There could be an actual person down there somewhere, screaming to be let out, an ego beneath all that id. Perhaps even a Gambino has an inner bambino. The beauty of "The Sopranos" is that it's peeling away the emotions that turned Tony into a gangster, one layer at a time. Analyze This isn't near that ambitious, but it doesn't just go for easy laughs either. It goes for more difficult laughs, laughs based in character. Decked out in silk suits that were probably tailored by some guy who only speaks Sicilian, De Niro's Paul Vitti can't help but remind us of John Gotti, but he shows us a side of Gotti that, if it exists, even Gotti doesn't know about--his touchy-feely side. De Niro, whom this role fits like a glove, does a great job of balancing comedy and drama, warmth and danger, stupidity and intelligence; he's hysterical and a little bit terrifying. "I'm trying to get some closure on that," he tells a rival Mob boss (Chazz Palminteri) who's sent one hitman after another his way. The very word "closure" sends a shock wave through the New York underworld. Crystal's Ben Sobol is supposed to be everything Paul Vitti isn't--an intellectual, a mensch, a wimp. The script doesn't do a very good job of developing the idea that, compared to his usual clients, Vitti might be an interesting challenge for Ben. Instead, Ben spends the whole movie running as fast as he can in the opposite direction, his fiancée (Lisa Kudrow, given little to do, doing little) right behind him. De Niro seems to bring out the actor in Crystal, keeps him on his toes. It's not much of a role; Ben's just a good-natured schlub whose friendly face is topped with a frizzy corona of hair. But Crystal gives it just enough wit and grit to make it interesting. And, late in the movie, he does much more than that when Ben, impersonating Vitti's consigliere, takes the floor at a Mafia conclave and both impresses and confuses the hell out of everybody with a blast of tough-guy psychobabble. For once, Crystal's nuttiness makes it onto the big screen.
The supporting cast is good for some dem-and-dose moments. (You can practically smell the cologne.) Joseph Viterelli, who looks like a truck that ran over itself, gets a laugh when he refers to "one of those psychic ESPN things." Luckily, director Harold Ramis doesn't step all over the punchlines, just points and lets us draw our own conclusions. Analyze This isn't a great comedy; it's not as consistently entertaining as, say, Married to the Mob, which also showed organized crime lapsing into unorganized crime. But, thanks mostly to De Niro, the movie keeps poking us in the ribs, whether with a finger or a gun. As the Mafia (supposedly) continues its pratfall into oblivion, Mafiosi have become dangerously amusing; if only as comedians, they kill.