- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

The braintrust of "The Sopranos" pleaded an early sabbatical after the third season, but conceptual drift and narrative indecision persist in the belated fourth season, which concludes Sunday. If anything, the inertia that crept into season three has been magnified. It's difficult to conclude that a year of reflection had a rejuvenating effect.

A similar impasse must have outwitted the humorists responsible for "Analyze That," which took three years to follow through on the crowd-pleasing pretext of "Analyze This," noteworthy at the start because it echoed a key device in "The Sopranos": incongruous psychiatric consultations between a timorous shrink and an overbearing mob boss seeking a discreet cure for anxiety attacks that could threaten his criminal authority and job security.

It looks as if "The Sopranos" may have exhausted the potential in James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco as Mafioso and analyst. The facetious partnership of Robert De Niro as Paul Vitti, behind bars at the outset of the sequel, and Billy Crystal as Dr. Ben Sobel, obliged to sweat it out as his patient's reluctant guardian, may not recover from the scatterbrained shortcomings of "Analyze That."

Dementia supposedly overwhelms Vitti while he's serving a term at Sing Sing. The name of the institution itself probably inspired his most conspicuous sign of lunacy: sudden outbursts of the songs from "West Side Story." The idea is always funnier than the execution. A parole hearing is a month away. The feds think they might get a more accurate reading of Vitti's mental state if the subject were domesticated, so they lean on Dr. Sobel to provide a foster home.

The fish-out-of-water possibilities in this arrangement are exhausted as soon as Mr. De Niro invites a hooker into the guest bedroom for a night of noisy exertion and then scandalizes a Sobel family gathering soon after Dr. Sobel's father has died. So the hilarious aspects of observing Paul Vitti hang around the house are shelved prematurely but mercifully. The fallback angle: jobs that Vitti would be too domineering to finesse, such as luxury auto salesman and assistant maitre d'.

On the plus side, the restaurant gig does rationalize an agreeable guest appearance by New York Yankees skipper Joe Torre. The writers, a trio that includes director Harold Ramis, settle for another arbitrary option before trying to pass off Mr. De Niro in other wacky temp jobs (how about Vitti as an au pair or street mime?); they impose Vitti and his crew on the company of a TV production company, the purveyors of a popular series about mobsters titled "Little Caesar."

One amusing brainstorm grows out of the show-business gambit: Anthony LaPaglia in an unbilled performance as the Australian actor who stars as the updated Little Caesar. Mr. LaPaglia's career has been an ethnic inside joke because his Italian-Australian origins usually have been concealed in Italian-American roles.

Inexplicably, Mr. Ramis allows exorbitant and affected screen time to Reg Rogers, the actor cast as the show's gushy impresario, Raoul Berman, such a pushover for "authenticity" that he provides no resistance to the Vitti takeover, which also strong-arms the plot in violence-prone and laborious directions.

Analyzing the movie, you discover a case study in haphazard judgment. Every amusing incidental touch is marred by some heavy-handed blunder. Cathy Moriarty, who played Mr. De Niro's underage mismate in "Raging Bull" more than 20 years ago, is more in the nature of an inside joke without a discernible comic payoff while cast as a poster moll for affirmative action: a hard-boiled mob widow who supposedly has inherited one of the Jersey families.

Lisa Kudrow remains a token presence as Dr. Sobel's spouse. Mr. Crystal gets a pair of effective slapstick

situations: manipulating Mr. De Niro's mug to test his reactions and turning Dr. Sobel into a gibbering idiot, mellowed to a fault by too many tranquilizers, during a dinner date at a Japanese restaurant.

Still, the most trustworthy asset of the new movie probably is an encore line rather than the encore presence of either co-star: "Analyze That" seems most assured when Mr. De Niro points at Mr. Crystal and delivers Vitti's trademark compliment, "You, you're good, you." It's one of those inspired catchphrases that can be borrowed for numerous occasions. It also has become the best reason for humoring the further misadventures of Dr. Sobel and the Wiseguy.


TITLE: "Analyze That"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity; violence with a facetious emphasis)

CREDITS: Directed by Harold Ramis. Written by Peter Steinfeld, Mr. Ramis and Peter Tolan.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes


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