Analyze This and Donnie Brasco (review)

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Mob Mentality

Is nothing sacred? Is everything once holy open to revisionism these days? Kevin Smith tells us that Luke Skywalker is a war criminal. The New York Times informs us that Willy Loman just needed some Ritalin. And now two films — Analyze This and Donnie Brasco — go behind the mafia’s noble façade to show us that it’s not the honorable and imposing world that Hollywood has always assured us it was.

“Family” Therapy
Just the concept alone is almost too delicious to bear: the mobster and the therapist. After years of achingly earnest, however fabulous, movies about the mafia — The Godfather, Goodfellas — that treated them with passion and seriousness, here finally is a film that acknowledges that the mob is the most dysfunctional family of them all. Analyze This slams the all-action, guns-ablazing mob smack up against our touchy-feely, therapy-mad era and serves it up with 90s-style irony and enough hearty, tears-rolling-down-your-face laughs that you’ll miss half the dialogue.
Paul Vitti (Ronin‘s Robert DeNiro) is under a lot of stress. He rises to head of his family when the boss gets whacked, so now he’s the one who has to deal with modernizing the mob, what with all the Chinese and crazy Russians muscling in. He suffers panic attacks; he can’t perform with either his wife or his mistress; he cries at sentimental television commercials; he hesitates to shoot someone who badly deserves it. In short, he’s a mess. Enter psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), who literally runs into Vitti’s henchmen. He tries to refuse Vitti as a patient, but… well, you know how these mob guys can be. One cannot say no. And so we’re suddenly witnessing a mafioso getting in touch with his feelings. It defies description, how funny this is.

In this context, suddenly everything that was once grave and solemn and frightening about the mob becomes a riot. Pick a cliché — the soldier stepping before a door to prevent any interruptions to the beating the poor jerk within is getting, the summit of mob bosses, the nighttime disposal of a body — and you’ll find it put to good use in the cause of comedy. As a friend of mine noted sardonically, “We’re laughing about guys getting whacked.”

What’s truly wonderful about Analyze This is that it’s impossible for the previews and television commercials — or any review — to give away all the best jokes. The humor arises not out of sight gags or one-liners (though there are a few funny ones) but from the culture clash between the emotional, exploratory, talky world of psychotherapy and the violent, angry mob; and between the slightly nebbishy, educated Sobel and the overly aggressive, streetsmart Vitti. The humor builds on what comes before, so that, for example, when we get to the inevitable homage to The Godfather, it’s funny because it springs from the interactions between Sobel and Vitti that we’ve been watching for the past hour. Even Vitti’s one-liner that caps it arises from the character that DeNiro’s been developing.

Speaking of whom… We’ve never seen DeNiro quite like this before. What other actor would dare to take everything for which we’ve always worshipped him — the intensity, the coiled passion — and turn it into something to laugh at? That scrunched-up expression of subsumed rage that’s his trademark, for example, shows up here in exactly the same form that we’ve always seen it, except now it’s funny. I don’t know how he did that, or how he suddenly switched off the comedy for a brief moment that mesmerized the full-house audience with whom I saw this film — one moment we were rolling in the aisles, and the next was dead silence as we stared in awe at Vitti’s sudden therapy breakthrough. That moment gave Analyze This a surprising heft that elevated the movie way beyond diverting comedy into something that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

Analyze This may even be funnier that I realized. I couldn’t hear half the film over my own laughter and that of the crowd. Definitely worth a repeat viewing. A brilliant concept, brilliantly executed (pun intended).

To the Mob Born
Donnie Brasco is practically the anti-Godfather. Based on a true story, this dark, depressing, intelligent film shows the flip side of the world of family, honor, and loyalty of Coppola’s saga, exposing the effect the underworld has not just on an ordinary worker but also on a cop who polices it, and the thin line that divides the good guys from the bad.

In 1978, FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), aka Donnie Brasco, goes deep under cover within a Brooklyn mob organization. He’s taken under the wing of aging, low-level soldier Lefty (Al Pacino). “Anything happens, I’m responsible,” Lefty warns Donnie. “I represent you. Keep your nose clean, be a good earner, follow the rules, and who knows, maybe one day… you become a wiseguy, a made guy.” But Lefty followed all those rules, too, and he’s got nothing to show for it except thirty years of betrayal and backstabbing from supposed friends and constant passing over for promotion. Lefty knows he’s a “spoke on the wheel,” but he’s resigned to his fate — it’s the only life he knows. In one sad scene, he’s reduced to smashing a parking meter for money.

As Donnie gets closer to Lefty and gains more of the mobster’s confidence, he starts to get genuinely emotionally involved. And he gets sucked deeper into the violence and crime, participating in thefts, drug deals, and murders. Though his heart may not really be in it — in one grisly scene, he’s barely able to keep from puking as he helps carve up newly dead bodies for dumping — he finds himself increasingly torn between loyalty to Lefty and devotion to his own wife (Return to Paradise‘s Anne Heche) and young daughters. All too aware that if suspicion were to fall on Donnie, Lefty would be in danger, Donnie is absent from his real home for weeks at a time, working to maintain his charade, missing Christmas and his daughter’s first communion. His marriage is in ruins, his life is in danger, and when his wife accuses him of “becoming like them,” he concurs: “I spent all these years trying to be the good guy, the man in the white hat. For what? For nothing. I’m not becoming them — I am them.” Like Lefty, he has nothing to show for his life.

Unlike with The Godfather — in which you root for the Corleones in spite of yourself, knowing how awful they really are and yet totally entranced by them — in Donnie Brasco it’s impossible not to feel for Lefty. Pacino endows him with a kind of pitiful grace that we can readily identify with — our run-of-the-mill, law-abiding jobs screw us over, too, and keep us down in positions we’ve long outgrown, although we know that Lefty’s got it worse. At least we don’t have to worry that the next time the boss summons us it’ll be for a bullet in the head.

Depp, too, gives an ingenious performance as a complicated man with deeply divided loyalties. When he tells his wife, “This job is eating me alive. I can’t breathe anymore,” we can feel the defeated anger in Joe/Donnie. Depp and Heche, in their few scenes together, are electric — they’re two of the most interesting young actors working today, and their sparring makes you hungry to see them act together again.

Donnie Brasco tarnishes the shiny veneer of the mob we’ve seen in earlier movies, holding up its players not as criminal heroes but as cogs in a criminal machine, more worthy of compassion than cheers.

Analyze This
viewed at a public multiplex screening

Donnie Brasco
viewed at home on a small screen

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