Rare is the good sequel; rarer yet is the good comedy sequel. (The first person to say "Austin Powers" gets slapped.) But Analyze That -- will the inevitable third chapter be called Analyze the Other? -- easily tops its predecessor. It's still formulaic, which is no surprise. But no longer is the film forced to spend endless minutes spelling out a character relationship that we already know simply by looking at the poster or by entering a theater with any previous knowledge of the character types De Niro and Billy Crystal usually play. Comedy may be hard, and certain individual gags were clearly difficult to film, but it's made a little easier when the characters the stars have to play might as well be named Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.
Any fan of the first film as rabidly obsessed with continuity as the average Star Wars geek should be advised that consistency is ignored. If we are to assume that real time has elapsed between the films (and the aging of teen-ager Kyle Sabihy, as Crystal's son, would indicate that it has), then De Niro's Paul Vitti has been in jail three years rather than the eighteen months to which he was sentenced. Billy Crystal's Ben Sobel, meanwhile, inhabits a completely different house, minus the elaborate fountain given to him by Vitti. Fortunately, the filmmakers realize that the supporting cast played a large part in the first film's appeal, so Lisa Kudrow is back with a few more good lines, as is Joe Viterelli as the hilariously deadpan henchman Jelly.
Following an apparent psychotic breakdown, which induces the singing of many West Side Story tunes, Vitti is released into Dr. Sobel's custody in the hope of bringing him back to relative sanity in time for a parole hearing. Needless to say -- and every TV and theatrical trailer already has -- Vitti is faking and simply wants out of jail to find out who's trying to kill him. In doing so, however, he has to live at Sobel's house and get a legitimate job while trying not to freak out the good doctor's more uptight family. (Those eagerly awaiting Jay Roach's Meet the Fockers get a bit of a preview here.)
In a jab at the other "mobster in therapy" favorite, Vitti ends up getting a job as a consultant on a hard-edged Mafia TV show titled Little Caesar. (The show's gun-as-letter-L logo is unmistakably familiar.) Though it seems a little funky to implicitly criticize the HBO show for being inauthentic -- this movie and its predecessor are hardly cinema verite -- there are some good laughs to be had from an uncredited Anthony LaPaglia, more or less playing himself as an Italian-Australian cast as a New Jersey mobster.
In an apparent attempt to create yet another catchphrase beginning with the word you, De Niro endlessly milks his trademark line from the first film, "You! You're good, you." Expect it on T-shirts any day now. But, as if it need be said, De Niro is no Mike Myers, and he doesn't simply coast on repetition. In the film's standout scene, De Niro pretends to be catatonic as Crystal, normally restrained in these films, unleashes a full barrage of comic improvisation to try to expose the fraudulence of Vitti's emotional paralysis. Bravely stone-faced throughout, De Niro emerges with comedic credentials fully intact -- outtakes over the end credits demonstrate just how hard it was for him to stay somber.
Everyone seems more relaxed this time, including director Harold Ramis, presumably less intimidated now that he knows De Niro can be really funny and draw a large audience to a comedy. That this sequel has even less story than the first is actually a good thing -- the forced structure that was almost groan-inducing the first time around gives way to a more playful, anything-can-happen vibe. Sure, it'd still be fun if De Niro would do a good serious flick every once in a while. But in the meantime, this, or rather That, isn't bad.