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At the movies

The mob, a reporter and working women


I thought I’d had it with Mafia movies, but apparently all they needed was a good psychoanalyst. Harold Ramis’ Analyze This (Warner Bros.) succeeds principally because Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal work so well together as mob boss Paul Vitti and shrink Ben Sobel.

“Analyze This” doesn’t go in for subtlety and sometimes gets tangled up in its subplots, but you probably won’t care. Vitti is beginning to have anxiety attacks, even passing up the chance to eliminate one of his Mafia rivals. Sobel, about to leave for Miami to get married, is forcibly enlisted to help out. Vitti hastily decides Sobel is indispensable, even if it means removing the would-be-husband in the middle of his nuptials. No one must know, of course, because if his gangster opponents should learn that Vitti is seeing an analyst, he would lose face.

A fast course in dumbed-down Freudianism soon has Vitti talking about disgusting Greeks like Oedipus and afraid to even phone his mother. Although the movie wouldn’t encourage you to seek professional help, Crystal has a field day with his material, especially when he has to go to church for a mob funeral and be kissed by several of Vitti’s mob acquaintances.

“Analyze This” develops with the comic premise of a don with a heart of gold; unfortunately, Ramis didn’t allow the good chemistry between its stars to exploit the script’s most promising but undeveloped twist. Just as Vitti has repressed the memory of a distant relationship with his crime boss father, Sobel has a problem with his own father, a self-inflated celebrity analyst with contempt for his nerdish son.

Though “Analyze This” is the biggest hit so far this year, it fails to reach a deeper level of laughter by not becoming the story of the Mafia don dispensing therapy to the self-doubting doctor.

I’m more than a little tired of seeing Clint Eastwood working his leathery charms on much younger actresses; True Crime (Warner Bros.) makes that image part of a romantic myth -- the cynical, aging womanizer as rebel hero.

Here Clint is cast as Steve Everett, a not-quite-credible ace reporter for The Oakland Tribune, who has wrecked his career with repeated drunkenness and adultery. He’s lucky to have a job at all, since we soon see him sleeping with his editor’s wife, but he is assigned to do a human interest story on the last day of convicted murderer Frank Beachum (played with quiet dignity by Isaiah Washington).

“True Crime” is based on a mystery novel by Andrew Klavan, but doesn’t provide the genuine pleasures of serious detection. What it does have is director Eastwood’s fine sense of pacing and actor Eastwood’s ability to project a character complex enough to include both sardonic nihilism and an instinctive sense of justice.

Although Everett’s explanation that his nose tells him something is wrong with the Beachum verdict isn’t very convincing, by zeroing in on preparations for the midnight execution and Beachum’s last visit with his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and little girl, it gets us deeply involved in the fate of the prisoner and the desperate urgency of Everett’s stumbling investigation.

The solution of the crime is less compelling than the character study of Everett. Despite the excessively melodramatic orchestration of its last 20 minutes, “True Crime” remains an emotionally satisfying movie, in large part because Eastwood wisely does not tie things up too neatly. Avoiding hard-and-fast judgments, “True Crime” prefers the bittersweet pleasure of reflecting on all the might-have-beens of a melancholy, irresponsible outsider.

The most accomplished movie of 1999 so far is The Dreamlife of Angels (Sony Classics), a first feature of French director Erick Zonca, who spent some years in New York trying to make it as an actor. Maybe what’s special is that it’s the movie most clearly aimed at adults; it’s certainly one of the few with significant roles for women.

Zonca is clearly an actors’ director, and it’s encouraging to think that Élodie Bouchez and Natacha Régnier were jointly named best actress at Cannes last year. Action-oriented moviegoers will complain that not much happens; you’re mostly observing the developing complexities in the relationship between Isa (Bouchez) and Marie (Régnier), two young women who haven’t a franc and meet in a sweatshop in the northern industrial town of Lille. The movie doesn’t “demonstrate” anything, but reminds us what lousy options are available for women even in wealthy countries, where more and more of them are completely on their own.

Isa, who likes her mother and keeps in touch with her, seems better equipped to shrug off the hardships of the day-to-day struggle for survival. A tomboy with short dark hair and a sense of independence, she’s not defeated by losing her job in the sewing factory. When, passed over for a job as a waitress, she’s asked to pass out handbills while going around town on skates and wearing a ridiculous costume, she surrenders neither her smile nor her defiance.

Marie, a fine-boned blond, lets Isa move in with her in the apartment she’s tending for a mother and her daughter, Sandrine, who are both in a coma after a traffic accident. Marie’s apparent reserve hides both deep insecurity and rage. When her own mother comes to take her to lunch, Marie criticizes her for accepting the role of victim.

The young women form a fragile bond, living for the moment, taunting bouncers outside a club they can’t afford to enter. Charly (Patrick Mercado) and Fredo (Jo Prestia) prove to be good-natured types when met again at a bar; Marie even goes to bed with Charly, though she calls him fatty. He explains it’s just a matter of vocabulary. Isa is more interested in studying the journal left in the apartment by the teenage Sandrine. Isa begins to visit the hospital where the girl remains comatose and to add entries to the diary as a way of linking their lives.

Meanwhile, the bouncers have called the young women’s attention to the club’s wealthy playboy owner, Chris (Grégoire Colin). At first the women express class resentment against this son of one of Lille’s big-shot, things change after Chris offers to pay for the leather coat Marie is caught shoplifting at a specialty store.

The subsequent sex between them is sadomasochistic. Chris thinks she owes it to him. There is an agonizing shot in which Marie seems to recognize his contempt for her, and yet she desperately wants to see him again. The relationship with Chris breaks the bond between the two young women, since Marie is furious at Isa’s warning that she is destroying herself. Unable to stop her friend, Isa spends a night in the hospital chapel weeping for Sandrine who has given a first, faint sign of emerging from her coma.

Agnès Godard’s photography -- the movie was shot in 16 mm -- brings us almost closer to the actors than we can bear. Don’t worry about explaining the movie’s title. Just thank Zonca and all his actors -- including Colin as the contemptible Chris -- for a compassionate, unblinkered look at women’s precarious lives in today’s urban landscape.

The final shot, after Isa is tutored at her new job of fitting together the tiny parts of computer chips, reminds us that she will survive. But as the camera passes slowly along the line of the other women in the factory, resting on each face as it proceeds, we also realize how many young women’s stories we will never know.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999