Feel-Good Fellas; Two Boys From the Bronx

Harold Ramis’ Analyze This , from a screenplay by Peter Tolan, Mr. Ramis and Kenneth Lonergan, based on a story by Mr. Lonergan and Mr. Tolan, has been preceded by so much favorable preview screening buzz that its moderately mixed reviews after its official opening suggest a let-down factor. That was my reaction when I finally caught up with this wedding of Father Freud and Mamma Mia Mafia at an early-morning weekday screening with about a dozen paid customers in the auditorium. Perhaps that was the problem. Had I been engulfed by waves and waves of merriment, provoked particularly by the repeated combination of “Freud” with a gangster’s “F-word,” I might have felt differently. Still, there’s the problem that Analyze This seems to be similar in concept to the popular HBO cable television series, The Sopranos , in imagining a mobster becoming emotionally distressed enough to consult a shrink for relief from the stress of his occasionally violent occupation.

Robert De Niro as Paul Vitti, an Oedipally afflicted capo, and Billy Crystal as Ben Sobel, a battered and beleaguered psychotherapist with a mean Oedipal complex of his own in the person of his condescending pop (Bill Macy), who turns out best-selling feel-good manuals, would seem to be perfectly cast as this oddest of odd couples, but something has gone wrong with the comic chemistry. And the main culprit is Mr. De Niro, whose gift for menacing and malignant implacability is reduced in Analyze This to corny and unconvincing facetiousness.

In Mr. De Niro’s glorious gallery of obsessive characterizations, mostly for Martin Scorsese, the one constant has been that his characters always played for keeps. This was true in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). Even in Mr. Scorsese’s outrageously celebrity-stalking The King of Comedy (1983), Mr. De Niro kept the humor dark to the point of pitch blackness. He never gets cute and cuddly as he is forced to be in Analyze This . Worst of all, his too-frequent crying jags seem to be timed with a stopwatch.

Mr. Crystal fares better in this comedy-lite enterprise with his skills as a stand-up mimic enabling him to burlesque both the psychiatric profession and the no-neck ethnic hoodlums with the broadest vowels on this planet. As all the reviewers have agreed, Lisa Kudrow, so remarkably striking in last year’s The Opposite of Sex , is completely wasted here in a thankless role reminiscent of Grace Kelly’s part in High Noon (1952), in which Kelly’s Quaker character keeps pleading with the Gary Cooper hero not to go out on the street to kill all the bad men in a gunfight everyone in the audience is impatiently waiting to see. Today’s first-week crowd is apt to yell out, “Shut up, bitch. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

In Analyze This , Ms. Kudrow’s Laura MacNamara is a real pain as she keeps whining about her interrupted wedding ceremonies, not caring a whit that even anticrime zealots among us prefer to watch Mr. De Niro and Mr. Crystal bonding rather than be bored by the banal spectacle of Ben and Laura tying the knot as the culmination of a nonexistent on-screen romance.

Indeed, the narrative development in Analyze This is skimpy in the extreme. All sorts of subplots are left dangling in the slapdash manner of the earlier National Lampoon movies in which Mr. Ramis was involved variously as a writer, director, producer and actor. Groundhog Day (1993) is the one sublime exception to a career marred by an anything-for-a-laugh anarchism. Perhaps Bill Murray is the significant missing element there, inasmuch as Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991) was much funnier with Mr. Murray as the well-meaning analysand nemesis of Richard Dreyfuss’ bedeviled shrink.

I must confess, however, that I was prepared to begin my review with the solemn observation that I just didn’t believe that any member of organized crime would go to a psychiatrist except to establish an insanity defense. When I mentioned my belief to an analyst friend, he corrected me by describing in great detail such an encounter in his own practice, which demonstrates, I suppose, that truth is at least as strange as, if not stranger than, fiction.

I must concede also that Analyze This is good for a few chuckles, particularly when surprising bursts of psychobabble emanate from the mouth of a wonderfully growly and rotund actor named Joe Viterelli as Vitti’s henchman, Jelly. Mr. Viterelli is a welcome throwback to the marvelously articulate roughnecks of Preston Sturges, most notably the immortal William Demarest.

Farewell to Two Boys From the Bronx

The passing of Alan J. Pakula and Stanley Kubrick has left a void in the realm of meticulously grown-up filmmaking at a time when we need this endangered activity more than ever.

Pakula was born in the Bronx on April 7, 1928. Kubrick was also born in the Bronx, but on July 26, 1928. Andrew Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31,1928. I can’t help thinking, do not send for whom the bell tolls and all that. But that they are gone and I am still here is not a happenstance that calls for wild jubilation, but rather for somber reflection. Certainly, there is no such thing as a timely death, but the shocking demises of Pakula and Kubrick were especially untimely because both men were still vital and active in their chosen profession. I never met Kubrick, and I only had a slight social acquaintance with Pakula and his wife, Hannah.

My feelings about their respective careers are too complicated and minutely detailed to summarize in this brief space. Pakula’s work was more accessible and less eccentric than Kubrick’s, but his personal style was more elusive. Film historians in the future may overvalue Kubrick for his unconventionality, his presumed coldness and misanthropy, and even his well-publicized reclusiveness. Conversely, Pakula may be undervalued for his moral scruples, and social responsibility. I find both oeuvres singularly uneven, and perplexingly convoluted.

The complicating factor with Pakula was his long and fruitful collaboration as a producer with director Robert Mulligan, a partnership that yielded seven films from 1957 to 1969. Pakula’s own distinguished directorial career with 16 films between 1969 and the aborted present did not entirely eclipse his previous efforts with Mr. Mulligan, but it is possible to speculate that Mr. Mulligan projected some of the warmth and behavioral intuitiveness of the lyrical Leo McCarey, whereas Mr. Pakula seemed to be stronger with narrative structure and social connectedness.

Kubrick, by comparison. was more a one-man show, though he lacked the screen-writing skills of Pakula, not to mention the emotional epiphanies of Mr. Mulligan. But neither Pakula nor Mr. Mulligan come close to Kubrick in the expression of dark humor and sophisticated irony. I like both Pakula and Kubrick more for their parts than their wholes, but, come to think about it, that may be true of most if not all other directors as well. It is perhaps not surprising that the most honored works of Pakula and Kubrick are not my personal favorites.

What do I remember most fondly from the movies of Pakula? Little tomboyish Mary Badham reluctantly wearing her first dress ever to go to school in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen recovering from a disastrous one-night stand to find lasting love in Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), the now forgotten Norma Moore as a nicely sensible girlfriend bringing some calmness and sanity to the crazy life of Tony Perkins’ Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957), emotionally sturdy women played by Lee Remick in Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), and Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase (1967), together with the tragically vulnerable Ellen O’Mara with a hopeless crush on her English teacher.

In the post-Mulligan Pakula canon, most people would automatically cite All the President’s Men (1976) and Sophie’s Choice (1982) as Pakula’s most significant achievements complete with the mandatory “big” subjects, but I happen to prefer the more intimate scope of the sweet-and-sour romance between Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute (1971), and See You in the Morning (1989), Pakula’s most underrated masterpiece of today’s troubled domestic traumas of divorce and the resultant stepparenting, his most personal film, and a virtual mirror of his own private life. See You in the Morning featured a magnificent ensemble cast that looks better and better as the years go by: Jeff Bridges, Alice Krige, Farrah Fawcett, Linda Lavin, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, Theodore Bikel, George Hearn, Macaulay Culkin and Robin Bartlett.

My favorite Kubrick memories consist of the Hal sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the many guises of the irrepressible and irreplaceable Peter Sellers in Lolita (1962) (together with the gallantly doomed Lolita of Sue Lyon and the Humbert Humbert of James Mason) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) together with the nobly misguided bomber crew that ends civilization as we know it. I shall also remember Jack Nicholson’s typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” thousands of times as the definitive screen demonstration of the horrors of writer’s block, for which I think Diane Johnson’s contribution to the screenplay can take much of the credit. Finally, I treasure the first part of Full Metal Jacket (1987) with Vincent D’Onofrio and Lee Ermey taking top honors. As long as this footage lives, Pakula and Kubrick will never die.

Feel-Good Fellas; Two Boys From the Bronx