FILM

Criminal clowning

Two comedies take the mickey out of the Mob

Brian D. Johnson March 15 1999
FILM

Criminal clowning

Two comedies take the mickey out of the Mob

Brian D. Johnson March 15 1999

Criminal clowning

Two comedies take the mickey out of the Mob

FILM

Brian D. Johnson

How do you get Robert De Niro to break down and cry like a baby? Cast him in a comedy. In Analyze This, the tale of a crime boss on the verge of a nervous breakdown, De Niro takes his most familiar persona, the ruthless mobster, and plays it for laughs. According to his producer and longtime associate, Jane Rosenthal, De Niro worried about the danger of parodying himself. “After all,” she says, “he could wind up mocking the closest thing Robert De Niro has to a franchise character.” Well, like it or not, that is exactly what De Niro has done. As Paul Vitti, one of New York City’s most powerful gangsters, the most serious actor in American cinema turns into the Mugging Mafioso.

Analyze This is one of two new comedies that try to take the mickey out of the Mob. It is a formula farce from Hollywood, an honestly gauche confection with more than a few good belly laughs. The other is Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a desperately hip little independent film that has won awards and knocked box-office records for a loop in Britain. It arrives loaded with cachet—but its hyperactive narrative gets lost in a maze of cockney accents, visual gimmicks and competing subplots.

Analyze This is your basic fish-out-of-water farce, with two fish. De Niro’s mobster is a macho hard-ass who inexplicably finds himself paralyzed by anxiety attacks, bouts of impotence and bewildering waves of emotion. Billy Crystal plays psychiatrist Ben Sobol— a sensitive wimp with a stalled career and a

boring clientele of suburban neurotics—who suddenly finds himself on the Mafia payroll. It is a rich premise. Through a twist of fate, Sobol is conscripted to serve as Vitti’s shrink. And before long he is mortifying this capo di tutti i capi with the tale of a Greek deviant named Oedipus who whacked his father and slept with his mother. The entertaining schtick of Analyze This is cloaked in a rather shabby movie—one that does not hold up under analysis. But there are enough funny scenes between De Niro and Crystal to make it happily endurable.

They pull off a nifty role reversal. De Niro, the dramatic actor, gets the lion’s share of funny lines, while Crystal, a comedian who has been chronically unable to carry a movie on his own (My Giant, Mr. Saturday Night), is comfortable slipping into the role of straight man. Predictably, as De Niro’s character gets in touch with his inner feelings, the shrink finds his inner tough guy, and before you can say Robert Bly, Crystal is back in City Slickers territory, as the nebbish proving himself in the wilds of manhood.

The movie adds up to less than the sum of its gags, especially when other characters step into the picture—Lisa Kudrow has a thankless role as Crystal’s nagging fiancée, whose wedding plans keep getting interrupted by the Mob. Meanwhile, writer-director Harold Ramis tries to protect the flimsy story with a steady covering fire of one-liners. “What is my goal here, to make you a happy, well-adjusted gangster?” asks Sobol. “When I got into family practice, this was not what I

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had in mind.” When Crystal’s character runs into federal agents from the O.C.D., there is a cute confusion between Organized Crime Division and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And there are some juicy allusions to The Godfather.

Still, it is a mixed blessing to watch De Niro selling off his Mafia act, scrunching his poker face into a crying clown mask. It’s like seeing Marlon Brando mimic Don Corleone in The Freshman. Of course, ever since the Godfather movies offered the last word in gangster drama, it has been easier to play the Mafia myth as camp and kitsch. Gangsters live in a retro bubble, a pre-feminist time warp of squares, boneheads and sweet psychos who dote on their mothers—a world ripe for comic deconstruction. Quentin Tarantino led the way with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But even Martin Scorsese, Mr. Little Italy himself, veered in that direction with the caustic anthropology of Goodfellas and Casino.

British gangster movies, meanwhile, are a special case. From Performance to The Krays, Brit flicks have portrayed the brutal demimonde of the London mobster as a kind of fascistic, homophobic subculture of working-class England—the soccer hooligan writ large. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels puts a Tarantino spin on that tradition with a densely plotted caper flick that takes the form of a gritty farce—as oxymoronic as that sounds. This frantic comedy of errors involves no fewer than five different sets of gangsters.

The good guys are led by a rounder named Eddy (Nick Moran) who takes a £100,000 stake into a poker game and walks out owing £500,000 to the game’s host, crime boss Hatchet Harry (P. H. Moriarty). Eddy has a week to come up with the money before he starts losing his fingers one by one—unless he can persuade his father, J. D. (Sting), to wipe out the debt by handing over his bar to Harry. So Eddy and his mates decide to rip off the gang next door, a crew of brutal thugs who are in turn planning to rob a poney gang of hydroponic marijuana growers, who are controlled by a black drug lord.

Making his feature debut after cutting his teeth on beer commercials, writer-director Guy Ritchie presents a modish melee of freeze-frames and desaturated colours. The sound track is a cool mix of reggae and funk. But keeping track of the story is a full-time job, especially with the dialogue rattling by in a barely decipherable blur of cockney slang. The language is riddled with wit and metaphor, but so rich it sounds more contrived than colloquial. Then again, there is something fishy about a movie in which characters have names like Bacon, Fat Man and Soap, while the actors have monikers like Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher. What kinda wise guys have names like dat? Forget about it. Give me Bobby De Niro any day. □