(director/writer: Harold Ramis; screenwriters: Peter Tolan/Kenneth Lonergan/based on story by Tolan & Lonergan; cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh; editor: Christopher Tellefsen; cast: Robert De Niro (Paul Vitti), Billy Crystal (Ben Sobel), Lisa Kudrow (Laura MacNamara), Joe Viterelli (Jelly), Chazz Palminteri (Primo Sindone), Molly Shannon (Caroline); Runtime: 103; Warner Brothers; 1999)
“De Niro has a good eye for parody and is the best thing about the film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Another mob-comedy film. This one lampoons a mobster needing to see a shrink because he gets panic attacks. It’s a one-joke movie that quickly runs out of steam, as the cloying humor soon becomes insipid and the comic situation turns out to be more ridiculous than funny. It’s a star vehicle effort so if you like De Niro and Crystal, then you have a chance of falling for the film’s silly premise and not caring how inane the dialogue is.
Paul Vitti (De Niro) is a wise guy (a clone of crime boss John Gotti), who is the head of a New York crime family. He remembers as a child the 1957 Appalachian meeting in upstate NY, where all the crime families met to decide how to divide up the country. Now the families call a meeting to figure out how they are going to survive the changing times. Vitti’s family is in a war with his arch rival Primo Sindone (Palminteri), and he is stressed out about this and about the upcoming mob meeting.
When one of Vitti’s key men gets killed and he is trying to beat a confession out of the suspect, Vitti finds that he is unable to do it.
The mobsters get into a fender-bender accident with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Ben Sobel (Crystal), and when he gives them his business card to pay for the damages, Vitti’s strong-arm man, the likable giant, Jelly (Viterelli), arranges for his boss and the shrink to meet. De Niro tells the shrink that he needs psychological help because he has developed a problem in his career work and that the shrink has two weeks to cure him before the mob meetings begins. The reluctant psychoanalyst is forced into taking this case or else.
The shrink is absolutely frightened of Vitti and wants no part of the sessions, which is a source for much of the film’s early humor. The timid Ben (bearded to look the part of what a Freudian shrink is supposed to look like) is getting married next week in Florida to Laura MacNamara (Kudrow) and plans no consultations with patients for that period, but wisely changes his mind when the mobster insists on the meeting. Vitti tells the shrink after their first session that he’s great and he will be his analyst. When he has another panic attack, he tells the shrink he’s still not cured after the first session and demands immediate service no matter the time or place. Vitti even goes to Miami, rustles the shrink out of his hotel bed and has some forced therapy take place.
From here on the story has no place to go but downhill, as the jokes quickly fade and the pacing of the film drags. The film is loaded with sight gags and jokes about a clash of culture between the educated Jewish doctor and the tough-guy Italians. There are many Mafia type of jokes, stereotypes of Italian gangsters, and many other routines about the mob that have been seen in a host of other mob films. The film falls completely on its face by the last scene, with Crystal imitating the mob’s consillieri at the family meeting. The scene wasn’t funny, believable, or watchable. I don’t think the director knew how to end this satire with any credibility. The film just ran out of one-liners and ways to be irreverent to the mob, the F.B.I., and the psychoanalytical profession. At one point Crystal says about his profession, when he is asked by the gangsters to be vague, that his profession has left him well-equipped to be indeterminate.
This film has the potential to be late night staple on cable TV for well into the future. The jokes might even seem funnier late at night. The film just wasn’t involving enough to work as drama; but, if it’s a few laughs that you are after, then this film delivers. De Niro has a good eye for parody and is the best thing about the film. Crystal seems to be miscast, acting the part by rote. Viterelli and Kudrow add light touches of comedy in their supporting roles. The funniest bit, I thought, was of De Niro crying over a television commercial, thinking it was so much like his real-life situation that it must be real.
REVIEWED ON 2/28/2000 GRADE: C-