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'The Sopranos': The perils of Paulie?

April 16, 2007 | 10:58 am

Tony If my mobster movie arithmetic is right—inadequately discarded body, plus spur-of-the-moment fishing trip with the boss, I’m going to miss Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico).

In the trailer for next week’s episode, it appears Paulie and Tony go to Florida after the feds discover a corpse that could implicate Tony and his crew in the murder (HBO ain’t sending out any more press screeners, so I’m just as in the dark as you).

"Has he ever really been put to the test?” we hear Tony say of Paulie.

Cut to: Paulie feverishly doing bicep curls. Cut to: Tony and Paulie lounging near a dock, Tony saying, “Thinkin’ maybe we do some sport fishing. We’ll rent a boat.”

Cut to: The end of Paulie Walnuts? No doubt, Paulie’s left behind his share of messes (i.e. that hard-nosed ex-Russian army commando last seen getting away in the snowy South Jersey Pine Barrens in season three). But as a character he’s been comedy gold, his bizarre empathy (wasn’t it Paulie who, when Tony announced he was in therapy, admitted he too had been to a shrink?) self-absorption and hypochondria at once as preposterous and irresistible as the sweat suits and the wing-tips of sliver on the sides of his head.

Sunday night, Paulie was in three scenes, and by my count he stole two of them. The first came when J.T. (Tim Daly), the coerced, un-credited screenwriter of “Cleaver,” showed up at the Bada Bing to con Tony into thinking it was him, and not Christopher, who came up with the plotline in which the mob boss steals his nephew’s girlfriend.

J.T. tells Tony he got the idea from the Garson Kanin movie “Born Yesterday,” co-starring Judy Holliday.

“The black girl, the singer,” Paulie says.

No, J.T. says helpfully. “Although Judy’s character in the movie is named Billy. So I can see why you’re confused.”

“I never seen it,” Paulie says coldly. “Why would I be confused?”

Later, when the guys get word Johnny Sack has died of cancer in prison, Paulie’s idea of a toast is pitch-perfect solipsism.

"I beat cancer, but it took him out. Ride the painted pony, let the spinnin’ wheel glide, eh?”

Is that even the lyric?

Meanwhile, the death of Johnny Sack came mercifully—with great bedside manner being offered by Sydney Pollack as a prison orderly/oncologist in a former life. Something about hearing a wife-killer say, “I gotta concur with Rosen” gets to the heart of what makes “The Sopranos” so rich. Texturing the episode, which sprawled out after last week’s claustrophobic family gathering on a lake, David Chase and the producers continued to have fun trashing the entertainment business—Christopher stealing “story by” credit on the slasher movie “Cleaver” so he’ll qualify for the Writers Guild health benefits and smacking his AA buddy J.T. over the head with the writer’s “Humanitis” award.

"Humanitas,” J.T. corrects him, “from the Paulist brothers, for writing themes of socially redeeming…”

He can’t get the rest of the sentence out before Christopher smacks him with the trophy for insubordination. Daly’s character is a constant whipping boy for TV writer haughtiness. In a previous season, he was seen trying to hawk his Emmy to pay off a gambling debt. But the pawn shop operator was only interested in an Oscar.

-- Paul Brownfield

(Photo courtesy HBO)