Film Reviews: The incredible shrinking gangster


Antonia Quirke
Saturday 25 September 1999 23:02

Analyse This (15)

Harold Ramis; 104 mins

A Midsummer Night's Dream (PG)

Michael Hoffman; 115 mins

The Haunting (12)

Jan de Bont; 113 mins

The Theory of Flight (15)

Paul Greengrass; 100 mins

Girl (15)

Jonathan Kahn; 96 mins

In Analyse This, a New York Mafia don called Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) turns to suburban psychiatrist Paul Sobel (Billy Crystal) for help after a spate of panic attacks. The film follows Vitti's treatment - snatched between homicides - and his own analysis of the repressed Sobel. Eventually Vitti confides so much in Sobel that he too is targeted by the FBI, who want to know, among other things, how he paid for the grotesque fountain that has suddenly appeared on his front lawn.

Vitti is a keen patient, if somewhat resistant to advice. When Sobel asks him why he needs a mistress, Vitti replies "Cos you can ask a mistress to do things a wife can't." Why can't a wife do these things? "Whaddayousick? That's the mouth that kisses my children goodnight!" The whole thing is very light and occasionally hilarious, but it's hardly a new idea. In Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone (1976), Fat Sam the crime boss begged the wise Bugsy for support, eventually learning that "you give a little love, and it all comes back to you". And Analyse This is no more profound than that.

But the fascinating thing about the film is how little the cast has to do to make it swing. But then, ever since The Godfather, Hollywood has been poking fun at the Mafia. People stuffed into the boots of cars, grown men having an opinion about meatballs, Mamma in black again, the coded cries from Palermo - all ludicrous. The one extraordinary thing about Mafia films is how they make everybody nostalgic for a group who are beyond the pale of sympathy. It becomes oddly easy to forget that these men are murderers by choice, camouflaging their motives behind a screen of cant about "family" and "business". And the lines between some actors and their characters are now permanently blurred. I can't watch James Caan in anything without first imagining him messed up at that toll booth, his frizzy curls hitting the tarmac. It all turned out to be much more personal than anyone could have imagined.

Analyse This is full of actors who have made a career playing made men. The huge, pockmarked Joe Viterelli must be so used to packing a piece that he feels nervous whenever he leaves the house without one on a day off. These actors seem to move seamlessly from one flick to another, looking forward to lunch and a twinkle with the girls in wardrobe.

De Niro plays it as lithe as he can, but with that nose, that mole, that opinionated jaw, that atmosphere of weird, shameful pain, he seems to be both crumpling and uncrumpling at the same time, which complicates the film no end. There is about the ageing De Niro something so poor, so filthy, that a bright shirt looks foolish on him, an expensive suit always stolen. It's as though, while delivering even the most trifling of lines, he is secretly imagining a dingy morgue or a crow lugging a worm from a pile of soot.

Michael Hoffman's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in late-19th century Italy. Written when Shakespeare was particularly preoccupied with the relationship between audience and stage, the play's many shifts in dramatic style render it complicated on stage (all "brutal disasters" as Harold Bloom recently put it), but ideal for the screen. Hoffman's attention to melancholy makes this a curious venture - Kevin Kline's no-life Bottom with his scrappy whiskers and ambitions is the best I've seen. The cast in general is costly and admirable. Michelle Pfeiffer with her white, white hip- bones makes a good Titania, and Rupert Everett's Oberon is predatory, full of double smiles and silence - erotic.

And yet there is something sweetly amateur about even such expensive visions of the play. There is more than a suggestion of leotards in the fairy sequences, bringing to mind school productions and the hiding of an adolescent paunch behind some shrub. And why can't even the best costume designer in the world make wings look real? Surely they ought to be more moist? The confusion of accents is the film's strongest and most unusual point. So, Oberon is from Surrey and Titania from Orange County. This is fitting in a play in which different worlds find symmetry, and the emphasis is on simple, realistic human detail.

The Haunting is a meagre follow-up to Robert Wise's 1963 film. Neither are proper adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House, the Shirley Jackson classic, although Wise's attempt was frightening. Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson (who co-wrote Rushmore, so can be forgiven anything, even this) play insomniac "guinea pigs" who are drawn to a gothic mansion by a boring psychologist (Liam Neeson). They are soon huddling by the fire, panicking about the noises that are coming from everywhere.

But none of the frights or special effects is any great shakes. There's a housekeeper who wears a shawl, and the curtains sometimes come alive with faces of dead children. History always turns horror into camp, and there's nothing new in this film to liven up the stiffs. And there isn't even any of the Dunkirk spirit that can makesecond-rate horror fun. A quick burst of incisively expressed disbelief would have worked wonders. But enough of that was going on in the auditorium.

The Theory of Flight stars Helena Bonham Carter as a young woman, with advanced motor neurone disease, and Kenneth Branagh as the angry chap keeping her company. She rages and swears, he rages and smokes (roll-ups, convincingly). Branagh succeeds at going from demented to restored, at being a ruin of fearfulness and astonishment. The final reel of the film is over-sentimental, but the early scenes involving the couple at war are affecting.

Girl tells the story of 17-year- old Andrea (Dominique Swain), growing up in Anytown, America, who is ruinously diverted from her lessons after discovering the big sexy world outside. It is similar in theme to the American television series My So-Called Life, which had the teenage heroine addressing the camera with hormone-driven asides about boys and books. Sadly, this film has little of the pull or heart of that series, and Swain - who was superbly witty and testy in Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Lolita - is only humdrum.

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