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.
”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.