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.

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