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
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game