My Cousin Vinny (1992)
“We’re famous for our mud.”
OMG I love this movie. From the opening credits to the ending ones, this is one of the funniest and best films I’ve seen. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it but I laugh out loud each time, delight in the debunking of stereotypes and cheer Vinny and Lisa on in the brilliant final courtroom scene. For a movie that is almost 20 years old, it wears it well.
Two college age New Yorkers – Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stanley Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) – are traveling to California via the Southern route when they stop in an Alabama quick mart for groceries. Bill accidentally walks out without paying for one can of tuna but the two decide it’s not worth turning back to pay. However they’re soon pulled over by the local sheriff and hauled off to jail – still thinking it’s all about the shoplifted item. It’s a rude awakening for them when they’re charged with murder. Not knowing any local attorneys, the two are initally stumped until Bill remembers his cousin Vinny is a newly minted lawyer.
The call goes out and soon Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his long time girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) are on their way South. What follows is a culture clash comedy as the two settle in and Vinny begins to work – and annoy Judge Haller (Fred Gwynne) in court with their differences. Haller suspects Vinny isn’t all he says he is and begins making enquiries about Vinny’s credentials. Meanwhile, Lisa attempts to help Vinny with the case and with the surreal, to them, experience of being in a small Southern town. Things go from bad to worse as Vinny’s lack of courtroom expertise begins to show, he and Lisa can’t seem to get a good nights sleep and the DA (Lane Smith) appears to have the case sown up. With the death penalty on the line, can Vinny turn things around to prove Bill and Stan’s innocence and save his relationship with Lisa before all is lost?
I actually love the opening sequence of the movie. In the South – yes, we sell dirt, the fresh produce at those roadside stands will be some of the best food you can put in your mouth, some people do have hubcap collections and all gardeners go gaga for horse manure. And in the rural South, zoning laws are often such that the eye witnesses could conceivably live close enough to the Sac-o-Suds to think they saw what was going on. The director, Jonathan Lynn, is trained as a lawyer and in the commentary to the film, he states that he tried to keep all the legal stuff correct. Not being one, I’ll have to leave it those who are to say whether or not he succeeded in this trial of two New Yorkers in Ala-fucking-bama. I do like how all the clues and ways Vinny uses to win the case are all laid out as the movie progresses and that it doesn’t rely on a miraculous “rabbit out of the hat” to save the day.
Pesci and Tomei are fabulous in their performances and their accents crack me up. Pesci pulls off Vinny being obnoxious, difficult, and argumentative yet still likeable as the “fish out of water” experiences level him a bit. But he’s still clever and intelligent enough to keep his eyes open and use what he learns to save Stan and Bill. I think Tomei is well deserving of her Oscar and I have a hard time choosing which of her scenes I like the best – Bambi’s lack of concern over the pants worn by the son of a bitch who killed him, her ticking biological (stamp! stamp! stamp!) clock or the hostile witness closing of the case. The two of them work well together as they discover what grits are and argue over whether or not the sink in their hotel bathroom is broken or if Lisa didn’t twist it hard enough. Arguing is almost foreplay for these two.
Lane plays a smooth DA who thinks he’s already got the case won while Austin Pendleton is hilarious as the ineffectual, stuttering public defense attorney. But my favorite secondary character is Gwynne as the no nonsense judge who whips Vinny into shape even as he comes to admire him personally and professionally. Whitfield and Macchio are good but end up sort of fading into the background a lot. There’s also a funny pool player (Chris Ellis) who is part of a running gag about Lisa having been cheated out of $200 she won against him and Vinny’s efforts to make him pay up. The film shows stereotypes about both North and South yet ends up being a film about people more than caricatures.
The film is smart, funny and well written with a cast who worked well as an ensemble. Lynn could have gone for cheap laughs by making fun of everyone but instead he pulled back from that. There are some slapstick moments – watch for Vinny trying to get their car unstuck from the Alabama red clay – but most of the many laughs arise from the way the actors say their lines and the culture shock both sides experience. The way Vinny wins might not be exactly correct yet I was as riveted to my seat as are the jurors, judge and DA as he works to -believe it not – prove that his defense doesn’t hold water. Whenever I need a pick me up or a laugh, this is one of the films I consistently turn to. A