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Robert DeNiro revisits mob roles with 'Analyze This'

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"Analyze This"

Directed by: Harold Ramis

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal

Rated: R

Having played the young Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," as well as lead roles in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" and "Casino," Robert DeNiro as an actor will always be inextricably linked to the mob.

While many will remember these performances, as well as his roles as countless other heavy types, a lot of people might overlook the fact that DeNiro is a gifted comic actor as well.

He was the new "King of Comedy" in the Scorsese film of the same name and did a great comic turn paired with Charles Grodin in "Midnight Run," a film I never tire of re-watching.

So, when it came to casting the lead role of a mob boss in the new Harold Ramis comedy, "Analyze This," DeNiro was probably at the top of the list. As a matter of fact, the only other actor I can picture in the role is fellow Scorsese alumnus Joe Pesci, himself having a flair for comedy while being constantly recast as an Italian-American hoodlum.

Writer-turned-actor-turned-director Harold Ramis probably has the biggest hit of his career on his hands, and "Analyze This" has been pleasing critics, as well as doing great at the box office, two things that don't always go hand in hand.

Ramis began his career writing for the Chicago based comedy troupe Second City and then the legendary "National Lampoon Radio Hour." Lots of the Second City and Lampoon people went on to "Saturday Night Live," and from there to feature films.

While not onscreen until he co-starred with Bill Murray in "Stripes," and later "Ghostbusters," Ramis was behind the scenes writing all the while. "Animal House" was his first hit as a screenwriter, followed by "Meatballs." He then turned to directing with "Caddyshack," a huge hit that remains a staple of the home video industry to this day.

Ramis kept churning out hits and in 1993 wrote and directed a film that took him to another level in Hollywood. "Groundhog Day" was widely praised and financially successful, although personally I found it not as good a film as most folks seemed to think. With his latest effort however, there's no doubt that Ramis has solidified his position on the "A" list of comedic writer-directors.

If you're a fan of the HBO series "The Sopranos" (one of the best series currently on TV) the premise here may seem vaguely familiar. A "mob" tough guy finds himself in mental crisis and ends up visiting a psychiatrist. In "Analyze This," the mobster is Paul Vitti (DeNiro) and the doctor is Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal).

While trying to extract a confession from a rival gangland hood, Vitti finds himself not quite up to the job. This worries him a great deal, as he knows in his line of work any sign of weakness will lead to an early demise. He decides he needs a "shrink," and as luck would have it, one of his cohorts just happens to have the card of Dr. Ben Sobel, psychiatrist.

Vitti goes, unannounced, to see Sobel and immediately asks him, "Do you know who I am? ... No you don't." Sobel gets the message. After the first session goes well (for Vitti anyway), the boss decides that Sobel will be his personal doctor, on call 24 hours a day. This leads to some pretty funny scenarios, including the ruination of Sobel's first attempt at marrying his fiancee, played by Lisa Kudrow.

Kudrow, one of these days, is going to get the recognition she deserves as a comic actress. (The fact that she wasn't nominated for supporting actress for her work in "The Opposite of Sex" is a huge oversight.)

Besides the wedding woes, there are a couple of other subplots here, the best involving Chazz Palminteri as a rival gang boss. "Find out what this 'closure' is," Palminteri's character screams to one of his flunkies after talking to a serious, heartfelt Vitti on the phone.

Also adding a lot to the mix is character actor Joe Viterelli as Vitti's faithful sidekick, Jelly. Viterelli is another perpetual mob-film actor, and you'll wonder where you've seen him before. His best role to date was as the mobster with the decidedly untalented girlfriend in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway."

If you've seen the previews for "Analyze This," you've seen a good number of the gags, granted. Unlike a lot of bad comedies, though, these gags aren't the only things worth seeing in this film.

The characters are fully developed and the plot is well-conceived and executed. An actor of DeNiro's caliber, here willing to spoof his own on-screen persona, puts "Analyze This" a notch above most genre satires.

I also heartily recommend "The Sopranos" which airs Sunday evenings on HBO.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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