In the 20 minutes before the lights dimmed for this week's preview screening of Analyze That, a woman near the front of the theater astonished the crowd with her incessant laugh. She and her boyfriend were sharing something funny, and the pitch, volume, and frequency of her giggles were impossible to ignore.

That woman didn't laugh once during the movie.

While there were appreciative chuckles and a few laughs here and there, the rest of the audience was more or less with her, doing their best to go along for the ride, but never really being transported anywhere. That was uncomfortably clear in one of the opening scenes, in which Billy Crystal and Lisa Kudrow bicker after his father's funeral. In the first film, Kudrow played a bride-to-be whose wedding was spoiled by a gangster; in that situation, her consternation was funny, but as a wife who can't sympathize with her husband's outrageous dilemma (a gangster is stalking him long-distance), she is a good deal less entertaining. In this scene and a couple of other early ones, the filmmakers found some lines so funny that they left gaps in the dialogue to allow for the audience's laughter to die down; it's sad to see those moments pass without even a single giggle.

It's not all bad, fortunately. It's difficult to be too angry at a movie with such likable actors as De Niro and Crystal, and the story moves along at an acceptable pace. De Niro's Paul Vitti, who has adjusted well to prison life, is suddenly the target of assassination attempts. Needing to get out of jail, he feigns insanity - by spending three days singing tunes from West Side Story, which is more pathetic onscreen than amusing. In a development that stretches plausibility even by the standards of Hollywood comedy, the Justice Department decides to release Vitti into the personal custody of Dr. Ben Sobol (Crystal), who must house and feed the former mob boss until he's "sane, sober, and legally employed."

That's a big stretch, but there are bigger ones to come, like the filmmakers' insistence on a more or less serious psychological subplot running through the film. Sobol's domineering father has just died, and this has inspired him to question his life's path. The shrink is going a little crazy, and he invariably follows his inappropriate outbursts with the quip: "I'm grieving; it's a process." That's meant to get funnier through repetition, but it just serves to remind you how unaffecting these father issues (Vitti has them, too) are. Director Harold Ramis, who blended comedy with semi-serious emotional lessons so perfectly in Groundhog Day, has seemed for the last decade to be trying to repeat himself; but each failed attempt just makes the earlier film look like a fluke. When Sobol's wife sits him down for a heartfelt scene, telling him ,"I think you need to be grieving for your father," the memory of De Niro croaking out, "When you're a jet, you're a jet all the way," suddenly sounds a lot more appealing.

This is a blah sequel to a so-so movie; the characters were limited in the first place, and here they barely do more than recycle the gags and mannerisms that made them halfway entertaining before. (Check out De Niro doing his "You - you're good, you - no, you're really good" speech for the umpteenth time.) But it's a shame to see a few promising ideas introduced (like an extended jab at The Sopranos, in which Vitti is hired as a consultant on a ridiculous mafia TV series) only to play out lifelessly. Unfortunately, that seems to be the story of De Niro's life when it comes to comedies - with the exception of his outstanding job in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, the actor has had a hard time finding the role that will let him be really funny onscreen. Surely this over-Analyzed franchise, which has him spoofing a shallow version of his better-known persona, isn't the best he can do.


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