Psycho Killer

Mar 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
Co-written and directed by Harold Ramis

When hitmen wore hats and Cadillacs had running boards, the average Mafia don could knock off the Tattaglia brothers in midafternoon and sit down to a nice plate of chicken cacciatora that evening, content that he'd seen to the family business and blazed a path for his firstborn son's rise to the governorship. These days, the poor buffone who's just annihilated his enemies doesn't dare think about work well done and a good meal with friends. First, he's gotta drop by the shrink's office to discuss the unresolved traumas of his youth.

Don't believe it? Just ask James Gandolfini, who plays the deeply conflicted mobster at the heart of HBO's new hit series The Sopranos. Yes, Tony Soprano sees a psychiatrist. Or check with Robert De Niro, a man who's played so many gangsters to such perfection in his movie career that real-life goodfellas can't help imitating him. In Harold Ramis' hit-and-miss mob farce Analyze This, De Niro's packing heat again, but this time his psychoanalyst gets equal billing. It's Billy Crystal, the featherweight comic, as the harried Dr. Ben Sobel.

This iconic madness, this jumbling of traditional tough-guy imagery, can likely be blamed on two men -- neither of whom knows a Panaflex from a pound of prosciutto. When John Gotti, formerly the Teflon Don, finally went up the river, much of America's misguided love affair with the Mafia probably went with him. When a decrepit goombah named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante was found wandering the streets of Greenwich Village in bathrobe and slippers, twilight-of-the-mob symbolism really triumphed -- at least in the popular imagination. Supplanted by Asian executioners and Russian extortionists, the Italian mob is said to be sleeping with the fishes. And in Hollywood, Don Corleone is dead.

But for the backlash of parody. The overheated burlesque of last summer's Mafia!, a festival of fart jokes in which a bungling mob boss played by the late Lloyd Bridges was motivated by a hail of bullets to do the macarena, was one thing. Enlisting De Niro, the great movie gangster of our time, to shoot holes in his own myth is another. It's like signing up John Wayne to star in Blazing Saddles. Should we get all misty-eyed that the sun is setting on the button men of yore? Not necessarily. Analyze This won't win any Oscars, and its comedy is pretty tortured in places, but the pleasures of watching De Niro onscreen never diminish -- not even when he's putting the glories of his criminal past at risk. In Paul Vitti (note the rhythmic consonance with "John Gotti") he gives us one of his strangest character constructions, because that's what this strange comedy demands. His "Mr. V." must convince us he's one of New York's most powerful and feared mob chieftains, a drill De Niro certainly understands, and a quivering bundle of anxieties -- without lapsing into cartoon cliches.

For the best of actors, this would be a challenge. For De Niro, it often looks like a piece of cake. Comedy may not be his forte, but comic shading is no problem. When his newfound (and very nervous) analyst explains that he may be suffering from an Oedipus complex and starts talking about ancient patricide, Paul Vitti shoots back: "Fuckin' Greeks!" The sudden collision of psychobabble and street argot hits the spot, as it does through most of the proceedings.

The unlikely pairing of Crystal and De Niro is a little like throwing Joan Rivers into the ring with Jake LaMotta. But director Ramis, whose previous contributions to the cinematic art include Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, is the right guy for the job -- if anybody is. He gives both actors enough room to stretch out without quite making fools of themselves in a storyline that doesn't bear much scrutiny. To wit: Stressed-out godfather embroils neurotic suburban psychiatrist in major mob war, then emerges as well-adjusted gangster.

No fewer than three screenwriters -- playwright Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan and Ramis -- have had a hand in dropping a slain hitman off a Miami Beach balcony into a tray of salmon salad, in concocting a dream sequence wherein the shrink imagines himself as Marlon Brando in the famous fruit-stand assassination scene from The Godfather, and in requiring the redoubtable De Niro to break into tears every time Paul Vitti thinks about his dead father.

Suffice to say that the real pleasures of Analyze This lie in the easy confidence with which De Niro savages himself. He's big enough to take the hit and positively dwarfs Crystal from start to finish. Everyone else is window dressing. Friends star Lisa Kudrow does a largely thankless turn as the psychiatrist's bewildered fiancee, whose wedding keeps getting interrupted by gunfire, and Bill Macy pops up as continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageCrystal's self-absorbed father, a celebrity shrink who's given his kid a complex, too.

Not surprisingly, De Niro's henchmen and his enemies have all been cast with an eye for the potato face and the double-parked nose, and an ear for fractured syntax. Joe Viterelli is quite wonderful as Paul Vitti's loyal, dogged bodyguard, Jelly, and Chazz Palminteri (Viterelli's castmate in Bullets Over Broadway, among other things) has some nice moments as a rival mobster who yearns to be the capo de tutti capi.

Good luck, pal. The Italian mob may be in steep decline at the movies, at least for now. But the big boss still reigns. His name is De Niro, and even when he's laughing at himself, we're compelled to pay attention.

Opens March 5.
-- Bill Gallo

Written and directed by Roger Kumble

For Cruel Intentions, his directorial debut, writer Roger Kumble has come up with the clever idea of updating Choderlos de Laclos' durable 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. With its focus on totally amoral protagonists who use sex as a tool to manipulate innocents, often just for hell of it, the book caused a scandal when it was first published.

Although its subject matter made it obviously off-limits during the Golden Age of Hollywood, filmmakers have been playing catch-up during the last few decades. French director Roger Vadim made the first film adaptation in 1959 (which was inexplicably released in the U.S. in 1962 as Dangerous Liaisons 1960); and the late '80s saw the release of two competing films -- Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Milos Forman's Valmont (1989). One might have thought that the coincidence of these dueling Liaisons would have saturated the market for the foreseeable future, but Kumble's change of setting is so significant that the new version is justifiable. (Actually, the notion of updating the story isn't precisely original: Vadim's film took place among contemporary jet-setters.)

Although the sheer viciousness and amorality of the characters is still outrageous, the sexual content has lost much of its shock value. But Kumble has found a way to make that aspect scandalous again: He has had the temerity to make the main characters high-school kids. In a marketplace dominated by teen viewers, it's a commercial inspiration.

In aesthetic terms, it's just plain wacky -- crossbreeding one of the wittiest, nastiest novels ever written with the gum-snapping world of She's All That and Varsity Blues. It's like Bugsy Malone ... but with sex and wickedness!

Madame de Merteuil and Valmont are reincarnated here as Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont, two upper-class Manhattan step-siblings who never seem to be more than an inch away from step-incest. They are portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar -- Buffy herself! -- and Ryan Phillippe, who also worked together in the dreary I Know What You Did Last Summer. (Curiously, in Vadim's version, Valmont was played by French heartthrob Gerard Philipe, who, given the spelling, is presumably not a relation.)

Kathryn's most recent beau, Court Reynolds (Charlie O'Connell), has dumped her for innocent, dumb-as-a post Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair, who, distractingly, sometimes looks like a scrawny version of M. Lewinsky). For revenge, she asks Sebastian to help her corrupt Cecile while Court is away for the summer, so that Court will end up with secondhand goods. Even at this early juncture, we encounter the inevitable problems in changing the social milieu: Do most high-school boys really put a premium on their girlfriends' virginity these days? Am I giving them too much credit by assuming that hymenal integrity has lost its once nearly holy value? Have fin de millennium values regressed 40 years?

Meanwhile, Kathryn and Sebastian make a bet over whether he can seduce the inordinately virtuous Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), who has written an article for Seventeen on why she, for one, is saving herself for matrimony and true love. If he fails, Kathryn gets his prize 1956 Jaguar; if he succeeds, she'll sleep with him.

"I'll fuck your brains out," she coos. "You can put it anywhere." (Later, she reinforces his flagging determination by giving him half a handjob -- which is presumably one of the main reasons this youth-targeted film has an R rating.)

On first hearing of the project, one might naturally have assumed that Witherspoon was cast as Kathryn and Gellar as Annette. After her terrific performance in Freeway, Witherspoon could easily have been limited forever to bad-girl roles. But, in fact, she's mostly convincing, though even her best efforts cannot make Annette's falling for Sebastian entirely believable; the script does not help her out here. As the story plows toward its finale, the cultural-dislocation problems become worse, until by the end they almost defeat the whole film. What is the '90s high-school equivalent of a duel to the death?

Kumble's solution is contrived and dopey. And the final scenes of Kathryn's comeuppance make absolutely no practical sense.

There are a few other little slips throughout. The opening sequence takes place in a psychiatrist's office ... with glass walls ... in what appears to be a mall. Maybe such a shrink exists, but who would go see her? It's not a particularly believable note on which to kick off the film.

Still, Kumble comes up with some genuinely witty new dialogue, in addition to the lines that are taken directly from the original. And he does give the material some extra kick out of the sheer perversity of having sweet-faced Gellar behave so wretchedly.

Opens March 5.
-- Andy Klein

Directed by Laurel Chiten

Autobiographical documentaries depend for their appeal on teasing out the universal truths embedded in specific circumstances, on connecting the microcosm with the macrocosm. As such, The Jew in the Lotus succeeds, chronicling Rodger Kamenetz's archetypal journey from sorrow and despair, his self-proclaimed "incredible sense of worthlessness," to reaffirmation, even celebration of his Jewish identity. Ironically, and to Rodger's surprise, a 1990 trip to India with eight rabbis to meet with His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama served as the catalyst for this revitalization. Rodger gradually reveals why he feels "like I've fallen down a deep well," that being his grief over a son born brain-dead and pronounced physically dead days later. Subsequently, a publisher nonchalantly rejected his book devoted to this most painful event. His friend's invitation to Dharmsala became Rodger's ticket away from and back home.

Considering both Jewish and Buddhist tradition, The Jew in the Lotus presents a fascinating comparison/contrast. On a superficial level, as Rodger says, "Monks like silence, Jews like to yak." But a deeper, more tragic level connects them. The Dalai Lama turned to the Jews to learn "the secret of spiritual survival in exile." Unfortunately, the documentary offers only cursory information about the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959 and China's continuing persecution of Buddhists, the destruction of thousands of ancient monasteries, and "slow-motion genocide." Brief archival footage teases us to want more substantive background and fewer of Rodger's candid moments proving repeatedly that "nervous is my religion." Similarly, shots on the streets capture too briefly the painful poverty or children pushing for photographs. The self-conscious camerawork (canted or rotating shots) proves distracting rather than instructive.

The title is a pun on the sacred Tibetan national mantra, which translates as "the jewel in the lotus" -- it's a joke the Dalai Lama enjoys. Ultimately, his serenity leads Rodger to achieve "the deeper and deepening human contact" he -- and we -- seek, but I recommend Kamenetz's book of the same title for a more satisfying experience.

Included on the program is the short, 35-minute "Bubbeh Lee and Me," produced, edited and directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson. Shot on video in the huge retirement community of Century Village, this homage to 87-year-old Lee Abrahams reveals her feistiness, her love for gay grandson Andy, and the sorrows of her life. Her parents came to the U.S. when she was 10 months old, but her family caused her great pain. A womanizing father and a mother who showed her no affection made Lee, in turn, incapable of expressing love to her own children. Her deep regret over this and her sadness as a widow of 25 years lead Wilson to conclude his tribute by endorsing "the importance of claiming fuller who we are and expressing our love."

Heartfelt and touching as it is, "Bubbeh Lee" meanders through grocery shopping, talking on the telephone, driving to buy a vacuum cleaner and several meals -- details that reveal character, to be sure, but minutiae nonetheless. More a home movie than a dramatic work, "Bubbeh Lee and Me" does allow us to enjoy vicariously this spirited woman and model the kind of slice-of-life episodes we'd all like to have and cherish with our own dear relatives.

Plays at 7 p.m. March 5-7 at Webster University.
-- Diane Carson

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Private eye Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is called to the home of an ancient millionaire (Myra Carter) -- just as in The Big Sleep -- and asked to investigate the making of an apparent snuff film discovered in her late husband's effects. The relatively innocent Welles ends up on an odyssey through the sleaziest corners of Hollywood -- just as in Paul Schrader's Hardcore-- with the help of a wisecracking guide (Joaquin Phoenix) -- a combination of two characters from Hardcore. Virtually every element in the script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and every nuance of Joel Schumacher's direction is lifted from older, better movies, of which Hardcore is the most obvious. Hardcore itself owed a tremendous debt to The Searchers, but at least Schrader gave a new spin to the story by changing the setting. To compare Hardcore to 8MM is to see all the worst results of Hollywood slickness: the former may have been technically cruder and not as fast-moving, but the latter is all faux depth, faux moral concerns, faux characters. And even in terms of purely utilitarian, deliver-the-thrills filmmaking, 8MM is only so-so: Doesn't Schumacher realize that having the action whip back and forth between the East and West coasts dissipates the narrative drive? (It's not an accident that Hitchcock didn't make North by Northwest Then Southeast Then Northwest Then Southeast Again.) And how many scenes do we have to sit through in which Cage and the bad guys struggle over what must be the slipperiest gun ever manufactured? By the end, the overwrought dialogue provokes unintended laughs, and even Cage -- aided by memorable work from Phoenix, Peter Stormare and James Gandolfini -- can't save it.

Now playing.
-- Andy Klein

Directed by Risa Bramon Garcia

Under the opening titles of 200 Cigarettes, we hear Bow Wow Wow's near-peerless bubble-gum anthem "I Want Candy." The movie that follows seems designed to satisfy that craving -- it's sweet, tart, brightly colored, insubstantial and utterly lacking in nutritional value. It's also fun to consume, and harmless enough as long as it isn't your whole diet.

200 Cigarettes is set in New York's East Village, during the last hours of 1981. As wall-to-wall late-'70s/early-'80s fluff crowds the soundtrack, we follow about 20 young people through bars and cabs and coffee shops as they flirt, squabble, bellyache about their rotten love lives, and smoke.

The linking device is that all of them are invited to a party at the apartment of single Monica (Martha Plimpton), but they're all taking their time showing up, lingering in the bars, drinking and trying to find love. In the case of two high-school-age Long Island Lolitas (Gaby Hoffman and Christina Ricci), they're trying simply to find the place; they've come to town on the sly, and they end up in a punk bar, courted by two leather-clad roadies (Guillermo Diaz and Casey Affleck) who may also be drug couriers.

Kevin (Paul Rudd) has recently been dumped by his performance-artist girlfriend, Ellie (Janeane Garofalo), so the prospect of New Year's Eve -- which is also his birthday -- has him cranky and sour. Even so, his friend Lucy (Courtney Love) gamely drags him out for the evening. Scottish painter Eric (Brian McCardie) has an especially rough night -- he gets ditched, then learns from an earlier girlfriend that he's hopelessly inadequate in bed. Actor Jack (Jay Mohr) takes out Cindy (Kate Hudson), his nervous, accident-prone, eager-to-please date from the night before, and gets his ego dazzled when she confesses to him that she was a virgin until he came along. Two friends (Nicole Parker and Angela Featherstone) compete for the same handsome, bumbling bartender (Ben Affleck). A cabbie (Dave Chappelle) who hasn't yet acknowledged the fading of disco cruises around, providing advice and commentary, Greek-chorus-style.

These and two or three other narrative strands are woven together. The running gag is that once in a while we cut from the madcap adventures to Monica, in her nearly empty pad, waiting with her crab dip for the guests to arrive. That's it -- that's the whole movie. It's the cabbie who observes that if you relax, it's possible to have a good time on New Year's Eve, even if you get dogshit on yourself. That's about as close to a message as 200 Cigarettes gets.

But as trivial as the content is, the dialogue, by Shana Larsen, isn't without wit, and every scene is shaped to work toward some point. The debuting director, Risa Bramon Garcia, shows no particular visual flair, but she keeps the pace sprightly and the tone unpretentious and light, and she handles the period details nicely. Last year's The Wedding Singer was a perfectly delightful romantic comedy (much better than 200 Cigarettes), but the element by which it was most heavily marketed, its '80s nostalgia, was its clumsiest and least convincing side. In 200 Cigarettes the period is also part of a specific cultural milieu -- the New York punk-and-art scene. The fashions and the pop references aren't flogged to death, so they ring true.

And Garcia, a former casting director, gets sharp, funny work from her hot young cast. Nobody's allowed to push too hard, and almost everybody gets at least one moment to shine. There are two standouts, though: the strapping, likable Courtney Love, with tough-girl manners and a tinge of poignancy; and the extremely endearing Kate Hudson. The latter, it turns out, is the daughter of Goldie Hawn, and in terms of style, the beguiling apple hasn't fallen far from the adorable tree.

Now playing.
-- M.V. Moorhead