Marlon Brando poked fun at his iconic Godfather image in The Freshman, a delightfully witty and exuberantly sweet comedy about Brando's relationship to a panicky, intimidated film student. Outside of perhaps Al Pacino, the contemporary actor most associated with gangster roles is Robert De Niro, and just like Brando, he has chosen to do a comic mobster riff playing off an incredulous 'straight' straight man. But outside of the creative impulse, the individual executions (figuratively speaking) couldn't be more different. While Brando's take was wonderfully calm and knowing, De Niro's is a back-slapping, in-your-face caricature, playing the type of guy who greets every one of his friends with a hearty 'Haya doon?' It's a broader, more obvious bit of shtick, but it is no less funny. De Niro has one of the most expressive faces in the movies, and in Analyze This, where he plays a John Gotti-esque New York mob boss looking for psychiatric help from a weak-willed psychiatrist (Billy Crystal), he has a grand old time communicating the most bullheadedly domineering intimidation with the smallest twitch of an eyebrow, and with the largest wrinkle of his brow. Having a palpably contagious good time playing the role, De Niro is a hilarious delight. The overall film does not rise to his level.
After a very funny first half-hour into Analyze This, it becomes painfully apparent that it's really just a skit masquerading as a feature film. Unlike The Freshman, this movie is perfectly content to keep repeating its one-joke concept with the smallest of variations. Wouldn't it be funny if a mobster needed a psychiatrist? It would, but Analyze This is less about a mobster receiving therapy and more about the easy laughs that can be derived from having an innocently-intentioned mobster shake up a normal guy's world. Paul Vitti (De Niro) is having panic attacks under the crushing stress of his work, and through a funny twist of fate, he comes across the business card of psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Crystal) and goes to him for help. Ben is about to be married (to a wasted Lisa Kudrow), and certainly wants no part of being a mobster's emotional confidant, but Paul takes an immediate shine to Sobel, which means Paul will not take no for an answer.
It is with this premise that the same gag is lazily repeated. Whenever Paul wants a session with Ben, Ben's life is interrupted and disrupted. There is not much attention paid to conceiving inspired laughs within these repeated gags; it's all about skating superficially on the tension between big-personality mobster Paul and small-personality Ben. When the movie does focus on De Niro's comically energetic and rubber-faced Paul Vitti, an enjoyably humorous feel prevails. That feeling dwindles away when elements of a halfhearted plot are brought into play, with a rival mobster (Chazz Palminteri) trying to have Paul iced, with Ben's dealing with the feds, and with Paul's underboss, played by familiar face Joe Viterelli (playing a very familiar character), stepping in to interact with Ben. Analyze This sags with much of the material dedicated to Ben, because Crystal doesn't make for a very satisfying straight man. Ben is the exasperated butt of the joke, but Crystal doesn't seem all that comfortable muting his formidable comic talent to play along, and by the end the film has practically shot itself in the head floundering to find a way to show it off.
Co-writer and director Harold Ramis is a masterful writer of broad film comedy (Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day), but this time he's launched one on a loud and brash joke that keeps going long after the punchline. As a director, he keeps it all moving and bright and lively, but as one of the writers, he merely plods along, leaning on his concept and his actors too heavily. Even De Niro's vigorously funny heavy isn't heavy enough to withstand such weighty mediocrity.