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ANALYZE THIS

by: Scott Renshaw

The very concept behind "high concept" comedy is that the premise sells itself. A potential viewer can see one poster or one 30-second commercial and understand instantly all the wacky comic possibilities: Schwarzenegger and DeVito as twins, Eddie Murphy as the nutty professor, Robin Williams as an iconoclastic medical student. The work is half done, it seems, as soon as the stars sign a contract. The reason so many "high concept" films are so mediocre is that no one bothers to do the other half of the work, leaving a situation comedy that's entirely situation.

There was reason to hope for a bit more from ANALYZE THIS, since director Harold Ramis also directed and co-wrote the decade's best high concept comedy, GROUNDHOG DAY. Ramis' set-up this time around involves a New York mob boss named Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro) who is having some unfamiliar experiences: shortness of breath, crying jags, difficulty -- ahem -- performing. In short, Vitti's got stress. To help with the problem, he visits psychiatrist Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), and instantly becomes convinced that the doctor is a genius. Suddenly the mild-mannered doctor is expected to be at Vitti's service 24 hours a day, a severe inconvenience as Ben prepares to get married to his fiancee (Lisa Kudrow).

As a pitch, it probably sounded hilarious; with DeNiro and Crystal in the lead roles, it probably seemed like a can't-miss mismatched tandem. Instead, ANALYZE THIS is primarily a series of botched opportunities. The most glaring gaffe is the casting of Crystal as Sobol, though at first glance he might appear to be ideal for the uptight therapist. Early in the film we learn that Ben is professionally dissatisfied, sick of his whining patients and left in the shadow of his best-selling pop therapist father (Bill Macy). Not only does this bit of character background prove utterly pointless in the long run, it emphasizes that Ben could have been an interesting charcter if played by an actual actor. Crystal simply can't avoid turning his every scene into shtick, making a classic deadpan straight-man part -- something perfect for, say, DeNiro's MIDNIGHT RUN partner Charles Grodin -- into something silly and clownish.

And the parade of bad decisions only begins there. The remarkably talented Lisa Kudrow, though given third billing, is wasted in what amounts to the "girlfriend part" for a handful of scenes; the rival gangster played by Chazz Palminteri, which should have provided a nice counterpoint to the frazzled Vitti, barely registers as a character. Perhaps most distracting is a constantly shifting tone that makes ANALYZE THIS a candidate for its own multiple-therapy session. While scenes of slapstick and comic misunderstanding are colliding with violent shootouts and emotional breakdowns, there's never the feeling that Ramis is aiming for an edgy, dark comedy -- it's just a high concept comedy into which other elements keep intruding. There's no narrative momentum to ANALYZE THIS, no sense of character consequence to keep it from turning into a repetitive series of sketch comedy scenes.

There's at least one thing really right with ANALYZE THIS, and that's DeNiro. As many times as he's gone to the wiseguy well in his career -- MEAN STREETS, THE GODFATHER PART II, GOODFELLAS, THE UNTOUCHABLES, etc. -- he always seems to find a new twist to keep it fresh. It's fun watching him nod to his past when he comments on a GODFATHER-inspired dream Ben has, it's fun watching him work with the amusing Joe Viterelli as Vitti's main muscele man, and it's fun watching him show the comic chops he too rarely has a chance to employ. Unfortunately, he's wasting his performance on a movie that doesn't know what to do with its actors, its premise -- one-upped by the current HBO series "The Sopranos" -- or its character development. ANALYZE THIS is a smaller scale example of what happens to so many summer b

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