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It probably started with John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor: Shriveled crime boss William Hickey croaks, “Have a cookie”; tormented hit man Jack Nicholson debates his romantic and professional future—”Do I marry her; do I ice her?” From Grosse Pointe Blank to Donnie Brasco, directors are trying to keep up with the changing face of organized crime—mocking its conventions while drawing parallels between the pressures and assumptions of that life and the life most Americans lead. This re-assessment has created a new breed of gangster: the same tough-talking, loud-jacket-wearing ex-Sicilian, but one who knows what a rhetorical question is.

The old-fashioned image of the American mobster is so familiar that it isn’t scary anymore, so almost any slight tweak to the archetype’s salient features reinvents the mythologies completely. Directors are giving the gangster world a little trendy updating to imply that not all mob guys are stuffy, elderly, and inflexible, making sure to have them acknowledge their debt to pop culture’s vision of mob life, so that organized crime seems even to its players like a big game of Dungeons & Dragons. A great director will use the angst of the professional criminal as a metaphor by which to talk about the state of the American businessman, his family, and changing social mores, as on HBO’s new series The Sopranos. In Analyze This, Harold Ramis uses it to make a lot of very funny jokes without much purpose or meaning.

Which would be terrific in a world without The Sopranos, but the unfortunate contrast leaves Analyze This (terrible title) looking like one of the best sitcom episodes ever, a machine-gun rattle of dopey jokes fired off with great care and smarts—even if you see them coming, they’re funny. In a rather unimaginative man’s idea of a “dream cast,” Billy Crystal plays Dr. Ben Sobel, a New York psychiatrist about to remarry, who in a haze of distraction rams his car into one driven by the bodyguard of Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), newly appointed leader of a crime family. “Did you see anything?” bodyguard Jelly (Joe Viterelli) yells at Ben as the trunk inauspiciously pops open; panicked but oblivious, Dr. Sobel hands out his business card.

Vitti knows he’s ready for the responsibility of heading up a powerful syndicate, but his body is sabotaging him—he has anxiety attacks and trouble breathing. Unsure where to turn, he calls the number on the card. Naturally, Vitti handles his new sojourn through psychoanalysis the way he handles everything else—with violence, heavy-handedness, and material extravagance. He barges into Sobel’s office, threatening the other patients; when satisfied with his treatment, he sends the doctor a towering outdoor fountain, which dwarfs Sobel’s tidy suburban rambler. Soon, Vitti’s attachment to his doctor attracts the interested telephoto lenses of the FBI, who would like to know who the new guy is.

De Niro has played this part seriously so often it’s a relief to see him do it as a goof. He is aware of his impact on popular conceptions of mobhood, and his performance here is not so different from the earnest renditions of made guys in loud shirts, but he pulls back from the brink of threat with a light touch and sure sense of timing; it’s a balancing act designed to keep the other characters (and the audience) off kilter by deftly deflating a scene’s tension only to pump it up again mere seconds later. “I wasn’t really gonna whack you,” he tells Sobel, after learning of the doctor’s involvement with the FBI. The analyst, reflexively sniffing out untruths from his charges, looks disapproving and skeptical. “Well, I was gonna whack you, but I was real conflicted about it.” Maybe he can join Anthony Hopkins—excuse me, Sir Anthony Hopkins—in a distinguished second career, being the best thing in cheesy comedies and slick genre trash.

The assumption that brute, instinct-responsive mobsters are acutely psycho-aware and on the same dialogue level as overeducated, overanalytic shrinks acknowledges the trickling down of half-assed scientific information—ordinary folk can reel off the household word “psychobabble” instantly. (And the diminutive, cerebral Jewish man with a glass jaw and fists of Nerf is a classic figure of fun, especially in contrast to such a swaggering posse of old-time macho.) Dr. Sobel is the kind of analyst who communicates in Feelyspeak to everyone in his life, including his kid. Soon he’s got the whole made world talking that way—phoning each other up to negotiate their feelings and ask for closure.

The script has fun with its eccentric dualities—the two worlds that intersect or mirror one another in the most unlikely ways. Dr. Sobel feels oppressed by his father, a famous, showy pop shrink with charisma and a string of best-selling books. Vitti bristles against coming to terms with his family troubles, namely the memory of seeing his father gunned down in a restaurant, and tries to spare his own son such pain. The gangster with psychological fallout from his job is also a useful way of channeling the general public’s disgust with, and skepticism about, the head-shrinking business. When informed about the Oedipus complex, Vitti has what seems to be the only reasonable response: “Fuckin’ Greeks.”CP