Film: The incredible shrinking mob

The Big Picture

Harold Ramis's Analyze This is a genre piece, the comedy of Mafia manners. The gags are broad, and caricature is preferred over complexity - but it's pretty enjoyable all the same. It centres upon an amiable New York shrink, Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), who's slightly bored by his patients and cowed by his father, a super-successful analyst who's too busy with his latest book-signing to attend Ben's forthcoming wedding to Laura (Lisa Kudrow). After accidentally rear-ending the car of a minor mafioso one night, Ben somehow becomes enlisted as doctor to Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), a crime boss who has been suffering from panic attacks.

"When I got into family therapy, this was not the family I had in mind," wails the shrink, who soon finds his life peopled with no-neck consiglieri and strangers plummeting out of hotel windows. The collision of mobster and analyst, with their distinctive professional codes and private languages, is currently being exploited to wonderful advantage in The Sopranos. Analyze This opens a similar vein of comedy.

Harold Ramis and co-writers Peter Tolan and Kenneth Lonergan work up some lively exchanges between Crystal and De Niro, none better than the sequence in which the analyst tries to explain the Oedipus complex to his patient. Vitti listens. "Those Greeks," he says in disgust. He later confesses to Ben that he hasn't been able to phone his mother since that conversation. The emotional traffic goes both ways, however, as Ben rediscovers a sense of purpose: he can forget the moaners and neurotics who have been cluttering up his couch and grapple instead with the primal stuff of life and death.

The film also highlights a contrast in acting styles. Crystal is basically the nice Jewish guy he played in City Slickers, the same feisty combo of underdog and scaredy-cat hiding beneath an armoury of quips. His comedian's patter works surprisingly well opposite De Niro's coiled, depressive gangster, and he doesn't beg for our sympathy - neediness has always been his abiding fault as a performer.

As for De Niro, he finds a nice balance between menace and vulnerability (like Ben, Vitti's troubles can be traced back to his father) and he doesn't rely only on that famous Hallowe'en pumpkin grin. The great thing he keeps doing here is to wag his finger in vigorous approval of Ben's latest analytic insight (ie, something he agrees with) and say, admiringly, "You. You."

Under Ben's emollient influence, he even starts using the language of the couch: "I'm in a good place mentally" he tells a rival boss at one point, before impatience eventually gets the better of him and he's back to spouting vicious mouthfuls of asterisks.

Analyze This isn't as dark or as droll as The Sopranos, and it hasn't the luxury of the episodic structure to relax into its characters' lives. But it does offer Crystal and De Niro on top form, and the remarkable sight of Joseph Viterelli as the boss's lieutenant, Jelly, a man whose face seems entirely constituted of extra-lumpy dough, with two barely discernible pinpricks for eyes. Once seen, it's impossible to forget.

Don't be put off by the title. Alexander Payne's Election is indeed about politics, but its milieu is the high school and its mode is trenchant satirical comedy. Don't be put off by the high-school part, either. In its incisive observations of American competitiveness, this film has more in common with the awkward Rushmore than the romance'n'redemption candy of She's All That and Never Been Kissed.

Payne builds his film around the formidable person of Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), school swot of Carver High in Omaha, Nebraska. Tracy, positively brimming with the can-do and self-belief of the overachiever, organises her campaign for election as school president with a fierce, almost military dedication. She bakes cakes, prints badges, gets her name about: failure is simply not a possibility in this girl's eyes.

So convincing is her candidacy that she's running unopposed - that's until her prissy determination irritates a young teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), and inspires him to nobble her campaign. He persuades a dopey but popular school jock, Paul (Chris Klein), to run against her, and so sets in motion a scandal that will sabotage far more than a schoolgirl's election plans.

The film, couched partly in voiceover, has a retrospective air, as if the events unfolding happened some time back and have only recently been digested. "You can't interfere with destiny - that's why it's destiny," Tracy says with typical conviction, and you fear for anybody who stands in the way of this spitfire. Yet Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor don't allow any complacency in choosing sides. McAllister, for instance, initially seems a model teacher, an easy-going but conscientious guy who's incorruptible when it comes to professional ethics; he's appalled when a fellow teacher and friend reveals his affair with Tracy. (He's subsequently ruined by it.)

Yet we discover that McAllister's life is not altogether happy, what with his porn video collection and his lascivious overtures towards a divorcee neighbour. And as for his being incorruptible... As played by Broderick, McAllister is a very human combination of integrity and cunning, with the latter showing more strongly as the film proceeds. How can this likeable man - three times teacher of the year, no less - be so petty and dishonest?

We find out. In fact, Payne isolates a couple of moments in freeze-frame when McAllister conceives his irrational and intense dislike of Tracy, this girl in whom he suspects something too driven, too grabby. Witherspoon, who did a fine snitty turn as the sister in Pleasantville, nails the role beautifully; from the set of her jaw to the steely glint in her eye, from the ramrod straightness of the arm she's first up with in class to the sudden smile she can command at will, her Tracy is a frighteningly accurate portrait of ambition on the rise. "If you're going to be great," she observes, "you've got to be lonely." We could almost be watching Hillary Clinton: The Early Years. Yes, that frightening. As a comic performance it's up there with Christina Ricci's DeDee in The Opposite of Sex, a different but no less forthright lesson in Getting What You Want.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back