The Killers

Bad guys get shrunk and (yawn) blown away.

Analyze This
Directed by Harold Ramis
Warner Bros.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Gramercy Pictures

The comedy Analyze This requires little analysis: It plays like a slapstick fever dream. It boasts, essentially, a single joke, the one about the Mafia kingpin (Robert De Niro) who goes to a Freudian psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) to cure his panic attacks. The introspection that this process entails flies in the face of everything we know and cherish about gangster movies. Hotheaded crime bosses like Scarface and Little Caesar are attractive vessels for our fantasies because they don’t think through the moral consequences of what they do. They want, they take. They get mad, they get even. Most of us enjoy seeing their real-world counterparts stripped of their ill-gotten gains; at the movies, however, we’re shameless hypocrites: We love the gangster’s vitality, his charismatic demonstration that, with big guns and even bigger balls, everything is permissible. So what’s the point of psychoanalyzing the id?

Laughs, of course–big ones. The juxtaposition of macho bloodletting with touchy-feely explorations of self-doubt. The incongruity of watching De Niro’s Paul Vitti, a Gotti-like mob boss, being counseled to phone a rival gangster (Chazz Palminteri) who has tried to have him whacked and communicate his feelings (“I feel anger”) for the sake of “closure.” Freud, of course, is hardly touchy-feely, but Analyze This is funny enough to be forgiven its muddling of therapeutic modes. The script, by Harold Ramis (also the able director), Peter Tolan, and the brilliant playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth), must have been a tag-team effort. Its structure is repetitive, but each scene begins with a joyous blast of comic energy. The gangster’s hooligans continually disrupt the personal life of the psychiatrist, Ben Sobel, who’s on the verge of marrying a straitlaced TV newswoman (Lisa Kudrow). They track him to Miami Beach, where he’s plucked from his suite in the middle of the night to treat his patient’s sudden impotence. They kidnap him from his wedding ceremony on pain of death. Each impromptu session ends with the patient’s exclamations of relief–“You got a gift, my friend! Yes you do! A load is off my shoulders! You’re good!”–followed, a short time later, by the return of the mobster’s anxiety and another forced appointment: “You did nothing for me!”

For all its comic exaggeration (almost no gangster or Freudian cliché is left unparodied), Analyze This ends up affirming the efficacy of psychoanalysis more than any picture since Spellbound (1945). It turns out that both Sobel and Vitti are staggering under the legacy of powerful fathers, giants in their fields of psychoanalysis and racketeering, respectively. So Sobel has to fire a gun and Vitti has to get in touch with his blubbery inner child–shticks that sound more offensively pat than they play, largely because Crystal’s handling of a pistol and De Niro’s bawling like a 3-year-old seem like sensible therapies for each actor. In the last few years, Crystal’s high-profile hosting chores have made his hunger for approval seem too sweatily transparent. Playing the straight man becomes him, and when he finally has a chance to cut loose–in a climactic speech before a meeting of the crime families, where he’s forced to pose as Vitti’s consigliere–his macho vamping jumbled with Jerry Lewis stammers had me laughing so hard that I almost needed supplemental oxygen.

De Niro is borderline appalling. Once the most unaffected actor of his generation–the most magnetically self-contained–he has evolved into the movies’ most shameless ham. To every part he brings an all-purpose dyspepsia. As Frankenstein’s monster, his sour expression was so ingrained that you had to conclude that the mad doctor had misaligned his intestines, resulting in a steady stream of acid reflux. His grimacing convict in Great Expectations seemed less in need of food and shelter than of a swig of Maalox. His Vitti in Analyze This has the dodgiest gastrointestinal tract of all. At the best of times he winces, in repose appearing ulcerous; in the throes of a panic attack, he might be struggling with an Alien-like parasite about to burst through his chest. The miraculous thing is that De Niro still has his timing. I’ve never met a psychiatrist clumsy enough to use the words “Oedipal conflict” with a patient, let alone to explain it by invoking Sophocles, but this dumb bit is worth it to watch De Niro blanch, shake his head in disgust at the thought of Oedipus and his mom, and exclaim, “Fuckin’ Greece.”

It’s a testament to the hilarity of Analyze This that it’s going to survive comparisons to The Sopranos, the rich and exuberantly tragicomic HBO series. Working from some of the same impulses as Ramis and company, creator David Chase has fashioned an elegy to a vanishing world of “family-oriented” crime–and an exploration of the dislocation that its passing evokes in sometime boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). Loping around his overdecorated New Jersey manse in an open bathrobe, Gandolfini’s Soprano is part muscle and part flab, with no connecting sinews. He carries his tension in his shoulders, so that even when he’s sweet he suggests a man on the verge of snapping. Arrested between thought and action, Gandolfini still bears traces of childlike befuddlement in his doughy face; he can’t begin to figure out why the foundations of his world have become so illusory. Analyze This is a hoot, but The Sopranos really sings.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is the laborious title of an even more laborious Cockney action movie that some people think is the cat’s pajamas crossbred with the bee’s knees. It combines the music video syntax of Trainspotting with the jokey nihilist bloodletting of Pulp Fiction. You’re supposed to root for the hapless amateur crooks over the platoons of murderous professional ones, and to watch as, with farcical precision, the bad guys end up accidentally blowing one another away. As someone who has written Feydeauesque farce, I can tell you that it’s no easy feat. But the real trick isn’t bringing disparate groups of people into slapstick alignment, it’s figuring out what to do with them once they’re all assembled. The writer-director, Guy Ritchie, doesn’t need to bother with sorting them out at the end, because there’s nothing left but piles of corpses. Now, why didn’t I think of such an easy way out?