by Ray Pride

Asked to define comedy and tragedy, Mel Brooks famously observed that "tragedy is my hangnail, comedy is you falling into an open manhole on your head." Aggression makes for disconcerting comedy, as Adam Sandler, among contemporary practitioners, has profitably proven.

The sweetest laughs in Analyze That, the sequel to Harold Ramis' super-successful 1999 Billy Crystal-Robert DeNiro vehicle, come out of pure hostility. The set-up's familiar. Ordinarily, I abhor Crystal's screen presence as much as that of Rosie O'Donnell -- they're the kind of appalling narcissists who swing from the chandeliers, yelling, "Lookit! I love me! I love me!" But when paired by always-crafty writer-director Harold Ramis with DeNiro, in the first of his late-career send-ups of his trademark urban intensity, you could stomach the annoying schlub. It's a double-dip fish-out-of-water conceit: DeNiro's neurotic mob boss Paul Vitti (a parallel inspiration to David Chase's Tony Soprano) makes life very complicated for shrink Paul Sobol (Crystal). Add the comic gifts of Lisa Kudrow as his skeptical fiancee, and Analyze This was the kind of effortless satire that hit with audiences worldwide.

So a few years have passed. Vitti's in Sing Sing, annoyed by a television program that looks suspiciously like The Sopranos. Oh, and the sudden threats on his life. He's near the end of his sentence and gets himself sequestered by walking around his cell in a semi-catatonic stupor. Is Vitti having a nervous breakdown because of the pressures from a rival family, or is his odd behavior merely a canny ploy to get sprung from jail early? What's a mobster to do? Feign madness and sing "Maria" from West Side Story? Why not?

Enter the doc. Ben Sobel can't take the case, since his father just died; Vitti gets him on his cell phone during the service. Complications -- and prescription drugs -- ensue. Pressuring Sobel, the FBI insists he check out the mobster, running a battery of embarrassing and painful tests. The last time Sobel treated Vitti, he tried to get to the source of his debilitating anxiety attacks but barely scratched the surface. It'll take time to examine the conflicts still lurking in Vitti's mind and help put him on the straight and narrow -- time that Sobel doesn't want to spend. He's got his own identity crisis, personally and professionally, in grieving for his father. Furthermore, he knows Laura (Kudrow) will be furious if he allows the mercurial Vitti back into their lives.

Vitti is granted a conditional release into Sobel's custody, becoming his patient again and -- even worse -- the Sobels' houseguest. In order to get peace back in his life, the reluctant psychiatrist must help the troubled gangster sort out his psyche, find gainful employment and go straight. The good news is that Vitti finally appears to be sincere about taking the cure. And Sobel really wants to believe him. Enter sidekick Jelly (Joe Viterelli), followed by mobsters like Louie the Wrench and Cathy Moriarty-Gentile as the new Materfamilias of the family he intends not to return to.

While Ramis exploits the wild blue yonder of psychotherapy and identity issues like the first-rate smarty-pants he is, the biggest laughs come out of character, such as Vitti's attempts to work at jobs like maitre d' or jewelry salesman or car dealer. "C'mon," he says, "this trunk's perfect: you can fit three bodies in there!" The shared breakdowns and crackups of DeNiro and Crystal provide the most pro forma bits of comedy, including an embarrassing bit in a sushi restaurant where Crystal slurs his voice and baby-talks his way through a drinks-and-downers bit.

Yet when hostility rules the day, laughs fill the theater.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
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