The Mafia is dead. How do I know this? Well, USA Today told me so, in a front-page article last month that detailed how the feds have prosecuted the families of La Cosa Nostra into near-extinction. There have been scarcely any Mob hits in years. John Gotti, the Dapper Don, fumes impotently in prison while the tabloids portray his son as a no-neck yutz incapable of tying his Air Jordans, let alone running a criminal empire.
Isn’t it more than a little ironic, then, that the Mafia is more pungently vital than ever in our pop culture? HBO’s The Sopranos has racked up a clutch of Emmy nominations, rumors of a fourth Godfather were halted only by Mario Puzo’s death, and the big multiplex hit this spring was about a gangster seeking therapy. Yet Analyze This may offer clues as to why we’re so married to the Mob as a subject for entertainment. The hard fact is that — sorry, John — the classic mafioso has mutated into a comic archetype in the years since The Godfather: He’s now an old-school guy grappling inarticulately with the changes of modern society. That’s right, mobsters have become the movies’ preferred stalking horse for dealing with male insecurity. You think I’m making this up? Geddouddaheah. Now that Analyze This is out on video, you can rent it and chart the evolutionary path all the way up to Robert De Niro’s wonderfully weepy Paul Vitti for yourself:
— THE MOBSTER AS WORKING SPOUSE Prizzi’s Honor (1985, Anchor Bay, 129 mins., R, also on DVD) John Huston’s rich comic riff on Godfather cliches sports felicitous dialogue and tremendous performances by William Hickey (as the onion-skinned Don Corrado Prizzi) and Anjelica Huston (as lovelorn, ticked-off Maerose Prizzi). But strip away the Mob trimmings and what have you got? The story of Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), who can’t get used to the idea of his wife (Kathleen Turner) sharing his career. Of course, they’re both gangland executioners, but small matter; as Charley says, ”I didn’t get married so my wife could go on woiking.” A-
n the mobster as poster child for peter pan syndrome Married to the Mob (1988, Orion, 103 mins., R) It starts out with a couple of goodfellas lining up for the commuter train from Long Island, and the rest of Jonathan Demme’s lovely, skittish farce tackles the kind of middle-class anxieties worthy of a good soap. Michelle Pfeiffer is startlingly touching as a Mafia wife trying to remake herself on the Lower East Side, but it’s Dean Stockwell, playing Tony ”The Tiger” Russo, who steals the show as a compulsive womanizer — the kind of guy who’ll go to a funeral and hit on the widow. B+
— THE MOBSTER AS ABSENTEE DAD Cookie (1989, Warner, 93 mins., R) ”I just want us to be a family!” gripes Lenore (Dianne Wiest). Too bad: The father of her child is a mobster, is out on parole, and is married to another woman. This could have been a neat look at a tired don (Peter Falk) and his punky daughter (Emily Lloyd) forging a genuine emotional bond, but director Susan Seidelman cops out with fish-in-a-barrel goombah kitsch, and Lloyd exhibits negative charisma as an annoying Madonna-wannabe twerp. Still, Falk scores points for September-of-his-years wisdom. C
— THE MOBSTER AS STRESSED-OUT EXECUTIVE The Don’s Analyst (1997, Paramount, 103 mins., R) Yep, before The Sopranos, before Analyze This, National Lampoon produced a straight-to-cable comedy about a hardnosed Mob boss (Robert Loggia) seeking help from a tweedy psychiatrist (Kevin Pollak). Worse than Animal House but better than Class Reunion, it at least lets Loggia cut loose with convincingly King Lear-like rants at the perfidy of family and famiglia in the 1990s. C-
— THE MOBSTER AS INNER CHILD Analyze This ”What is my goal here? To make you a happy, well-adjusted gangster?” asks beleaguered psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal). Yes, and since De Niro plays the patient, the shrink has a tough job ahead of him. What lifts Analyze This to the top echelon of recent Mob comedies — besides director Harold Ramis’ near-genius for throwaway character humor — is that for once, an on-screen mobster exudes actual danger. Partly because of De Niro’s skill but more because the actor has, over the years, come to define criminal violence in the movies, we’re as nervously primed for this hood to explode as Dr. Sobel is — and deeply tickled when he busts into tears over a touchy-feely TV commercial. The film differs from The Sopranos in that Paul Vitti is more thuggishly brutal than Tony Soprano — but he’s more of a cartoon, too, and that may point to a subtler reason why real-life gangsters don’t seem quite so scary anymore. Maybe the feds didn’t kill the Mafia. Maybe we’ve just laughed it to death. B+
Analyze This WARNER 103 MINUTES RATED R ALSO ON DVD