When Bobby Met Billy 

De Niro, Crystal and Two Smoking Barrels

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Photo by Phillip Caruso, SMPSPIN AN ADVERTISEMENT RUNNING ON TELEVISION at the end of February, a purported critic -- his or her name printed in fly-speck-size type -- declared Analyze This the funniest comedy of the decade, as well as the best film of the year. The two claims are ridiculous and disheartening for a host of reasons, not least of which is that studio overkill invariably degrades everyone in view -- the offending critic, the potential audience and most of all the filmmakers, especially the very director whose work is being sold like a used car. Here the director is Harold Ramis, who has already directed one of the most buoyantly witty comedies of the past decade, Groundhog Day, and one of the most humble, the underrated Stuart Saves His Family. Analyze This is not remotely as funny, accomplished or warmly human as either previous film, but Ramis and his reputation will survive its failings. If there were any justice in Hollywood, co-stars Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal would not.

In a premise starkly similar to that of the nifty HBO series The Sopranos, De Niro plays a mob boss who begins seeing a shrink in order to shake his panic attacks. As the psychiatrist and De Niro's straight man, Crystal evinces uncharacteristic restraint, delivering lines with his customary soulless charm, but with a touch less of his usual sugared obsequiousness. That the star and director of Mr. Saturday Night gives a more shaded turn in this film than his more celebrated co-star is a clue to just how dreadful De Niro is -- it's a prodigiously bad performance. De Niro has always been the most unreliable of our great movie stars because he's never learned how to play the middle; unlike Jeff Bridges, De Niro can't do normal or nice. Which is why Scorsese's favorite narcissistic projection excels in over-the-top characterizations, whether it's for the lead role or not, and tends to flounder when tapped for anything more nuanced than homicidal rage.

In Analyze This, De Niro plays a guy whose funniness is predicated on the fact that he's suddenly responding to extremes (a hailstorm of bullets, an upcoming Cosa Nostra conference, the repressed memory of a pasta-joint murder) the way anyone would: He freaks. But because De Niro, who's essentially doing a read on his familiar mob persona, makes no sense as either the jittery crybaby of the story's beginning, or the later, newly sensitized palooka who goes misty at a father-son television commercial, the gimmick never takes. Playing tough is what made De Niro a star, and his reluctance -- or inability -- to send up his own clichés is understandable. Which is why he's especially awkward when he tries to be funny. (There's a reason Scorsese cast him as Rupert Pupkin.) Whether trading quips with Crystal, braving an impotence shtick or trying to give some oomph to lines that went out with the Catskills ("Slap a pair of tits on me, I'm a woman"), De Niro doesn't just seem uneasy -- he seems lost.

To be fair, there aren't a lot of actors who could rescue the tits joke, save perhaps Bill Murray, who could make it work (if just a little) because he wouldn't be trying to sell the line or himself quite as hard. Ramis is listed as a co-writer on the screenplay, along with Peter Tolan and Kenneth Lonergan, and it would be nice to think the credit merely reflects a last-ditch resuscitation effort on the director's part. The film shares a similar theme of male redemption with his other recent movies, but there's not much here that comes from the heart and far too little that comes from the head. As a director, Ramis' strong suit is his flair for matching the broadly comic with a quietly assured sense of irony (the opening 10 minutes of the film, set in the 1950s, have a nice bounce). That's why he was such a good director for Groundhog Day's Murray and Stuart's Al Franken, both of whom have the ability to hold the screen even amid so much self-deprecation. Neither Crystal nor De Niro has a gift for irony or a noticeable lack of ego, and while the rest of the cast is just fine, there's not much room for them. Watching Ramis struggle with these two is like watching someone try to juggle lead weights before melting them down for a pair of shoes.

THE NEW BRITISH CRIME FILM LOCK, STOCK AND Two Smoking Barrels has one of those relentlessly hip soundtracks that makes me feel as lousy as I do when I accidentally stumble into a store like Rampage: exhausted, and more than a little intolerant of flash. The movie, which was apparently a big hit in the U.K., features songs by Junior Murvin, Dusty Springfield, the Stooges, James Brown and a raft of performers I haven't heard of, which, along with its pretty-boy cast and calculated insouciance as regards mayhem, gives it the vibe of every hipster gangster picture to hit screens since 1992. That's the year that saw Tarantino's reservoir dogs unleashed on the world, spawning a seemingly endless flow of guys-with-guns stories that have tried the patience of even the most sympathetic genre-lover. One of the better Tarantino retreads to emerge since was the Scottish film Trainspotting, which at least had literary chops, Ewan McGregor and a production design that made effluvium look like Kool-Aid.

Lock, Stock's 30-year-old writer-director, Guy Ritchie, cribs from both Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting (the opening chase sequence is a stumble-by-stumble steal from the second), but never manages to tap into the earlier films' energy or purpose. Four friends -- Tom, Soap, Eddy and Bacon, Runyonesque in name only -- stake their combined funds on the poker talents of one of their number. Unfortunately for them, Eddy (Nick Moran) enters a crooked game, losing their hundred grand, plus another £500 thousand, to a criminal overlord called Hatchet Harry. The tediously convoluted plot involves the foursome's attempt to pay Hatchet Harry back his money by stealing from some malignant types who, in turn, have just ripped off a lucrative ganja operation. There are crooks with monikers like Dog, Plank and Barry the Baptist, a machine-gun-toting stoner, a man on fire, some fine-looking cinematography, enough gore to win over the ain't-it-cool school of cinema geeks, and, of course, a rollicking score. What the film doesn't have is anything resembling an engaging performance, a coherent script, or a point.


LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS | Written and Directed by GUY RITCHIE | Produced by MATTHEW VAUGHN | Starring JASON FLEMYNG, DEXTER FLETCHER, NICK MORAN and JASON STATHAM Released by Gramercy Pictures | At selected theaters

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