"Analyze This," the new movie from comedy expert Harold Ramis ("Groundhog Day," "Ghostbusters"), would be worth celebrating if only for its centerpiece, Robert De Niro doing a hilariously dead-on impersonation of himself.
But a gem like De Niro's performance can only be set off by the proper setting, which makes "Analyze This" such a rare find: a well-conceptualized comedy that actually achieves what it sets out to do, in about 100 minutes.
No bells, no whistles, no errant bodily fluids making their way to the leading lady's hair, "Analyze This" gets its laughs the honest way: with a generous amount of mugging, several inside movie jokes, some giddy sight gags and lots of undemanding humor along the way.
Mostly, though, the laughs in "Analyze This" are for De Niro, who plays a gangster named Paul Vitti. Vitti has been acting edgy lately, ever since a shootout where even the cannolis got whacked.
Luckily, one of Paul's henchmen runs into psychoanalyst Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal) in one of this film's most amusing scenes (think what would have happened in "Goodfellas" if Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci had been rear-ended with that body in the trunk).
Paul muscles his way into Ben's quiet home-office, where he demands that the good doctor make him well enough to attend a gangland summit meeting. Ben soon discovers that Paul is suffering from anxiety brought on by unresolved feelings for his late father. But how can a guy come to terms with his past when his answer to everything is "Fuggedaboudit"?
The worst thing that can be said about "Analyze This" is that if you've seen the trailer, you've seen the best jokes. But the best thing about it is that even if you see them a hundred times, they're still funny. And the very best thing about this movie is De Niro, whose parody of his own past performances as Mafiosi is a thing of comic beauty.
"Freud's a sick [jerk] and you are, too, for bringing it up," he snaps at Ben when the analyst mentions the possibility of an Oedipal complex. As gifted in comedy as he is in drama, De Niro knows what to do with lines like this: He delivers it, as well as every other joke in the movie, with the same intensity he would give Scorsese.
De Niro steals the show in "Analyze This," but Crystal has his share of moments, especially the ones involving Ben's fantasies about his more tiresome patients. And Lisa Kudrow is appropriately simpering as Ben's WASP-y fiancee, whose wedding Paul seems bent on ruining.
Ramis and his co-writers, Kenneth Lonergan and Peter Tolan, pepper "Analyze This" with witty references to therapy culture, culminating in a Big Meet that turns into a particularly intense group session. ("You do have a problem with anger," one gangster helpfully offers to another.)
Accompanied by a bright, brassy musical score by Howard Shore and photographed with richness and clarity by Stuart Dryburgh, "Analyze This" is a joy to watch, although audiences with vulgarity fatigue should be warned that the profanity is thick and free-flowing.
And the comedy here is by no means sophisticated, as a scene in which Crystal tries to remove a police wire in a restaurant bathroom cheerfully attests.
But by its final scene -- which involves a sweet surprise cameo appearance -- the net effect of "Analyze This" is precisely what every comedy should be: bright, easygoing and strangely wholesome, even at its crudest.
Starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow
Directed by Harold Ramis
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated R (language, a scene of sexuality and some violence)
Running time: 106 minutes
Sun score: * * *
Pub Date: 3/05/99