"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." With those profound words, the actor expired, leaving us to pick up the pieces of most of the dreck that passes for comedy these days. Okay, okay. "Shakespeare in Love" was wonderful, and wonderfully funny. But name me three film comedies of the past ten years that belong in the pantheon, and even assuming that you can, I can tell you that "Analyze This" won't be one of them.
Which is too bad, because it has a lot going for it. First, the concept, also known as the title, which is probably all it took for Warner Brothers to greenlight it for production. Second, perfect casting: Robert DeNiro is the mob boss who can't handle psychic distress, and Billy Crystal is the unwilling psychiatrist who's dragooned into treating him. Third, an experienced director -- Harold Ramis -- with a sterling record of comedies behind him, from "Animal House" to "Caddyshack" (the teenagers' favorite), to "Groundhog Day" (which may even belong in the pantheon). On the other hand, he also directed "Ghostbusters," which has notoriously failed the test of time, and "Multiplicity," about which we won't bother to comment. Ramis even gets co-screenwriting credit here, so we would expect a bright, fast, well-targeted comedy, and maybe even a classic.
Not to be, in Arnold Schwarzenegger's timeless phrase, and the reason is that Ramis badly lets the film down by trying to get too cute. He overdirects scenes that should just be left alone, with the camera as observer. He mispositions the camera during comic moments and punchlines, so that the setup doesn't lead to the payoff, and he doesn't trust the ancient comic verities that say 'Let it happen; the audience will get it.'
He cuts away early from scenes that should play longer, and intrudes on scenes that should keep the camera at a distance, so what we hear and see are not quite working in harmony. Instead of just relaxing and letting lines and characters and events take their normal comic course, Ramis keeps overriding them with his own, you might say parallel, vision. Punchlines that should pay off a scene come to us as voiceovers during cutaways. Visual gags that need to be seen to be appreciated are lost in the endless camera moves. Crystal and his wife (Lisa Kudrow) come home from their wedding to find that DeNiro has installed an enormous, monstrously ugly fountain in their back yard as a gift. It's a great visual gag, except that we only get to see part of the fountain, and from a bizarre, high camera angle at that. We're left to infer the wit of the gag.
I can understand Ramis's desire not to settle for the cliché or stereotype, but this film cries out for calmer, straightforward direction. The script is fine, the actors are perfect -- young Kyle Sabihy as Crystal's witty, overweight, pubescent son is a delight, as is Joe Viterelli as Jelly, DeNiro's bodyguard -- but the direction lets them all down.