My Cousin Vinny

“I’ve got a judge that’s just aching to throw me in jail. An idiot who wants to fight me for two hundred dollars. Slaughtered pigs. Giant loud whistles. I ain’t slept in five days. I got no money, a dress code problem, AND a little murder case which, in the balance, holds the lives of two innocent kids. Not to mention your BIOLOGICAL CLOCK – my career, your life, our marriage, and let me see, what else can we pile on? Is there any more SHIT we can pile on to the top of the outcome of this case? Is it possible?”

A couple of New York boys get caught up in a murder investigation down in Alabama, so cousin Vinny Gambini gets called in to serve as their defense attorney. Hilarity ensues.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Dale Launer

True story: When I was a kid, summering in the Hamptons, I went to the movies with my family. I got dragged to see SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE in the summer of 1993 and Marisa Tomei was in the theater watching the movie with some guy – whoever it was she was dating at the time or maybe even her brother. I have no idea. I held the door open for her as we left the theater. The guy she was with really needed some deodorant.

That was just a few months after Tomei won her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for this movie, an event that wasn’t without controversy. Many people believed that presenter Jack Palance read the wrong name off the card, after film critic Rex Reed started the rumor. Price-Waterhouse, the accounting firm that handles the awards, eventually said Reed’s suppositions had no basis in reality and that Tomei had legitimately won the award, but the lasting whispers about what happened there no doubt marred what should have been an amazing night for Tomei.

MY COUSIN VINNY was Tomei’s breakout role. I don’t know if I would say her role was Oscar-worthy – the film is a fairly ridiculous comedy, after all – but Tomei is fantastic in it as Joe Pesci’s long-suffering out-of-work hairdresser/ingenue mechanic girlfriend. She takes what would have been a fairly pedestrian laugher and elevates it to another level as Mona Lisa Vito.

Considering the rest of the cast is comprised of a bunch of people I usually enjoy – Pesci, Ralph Macchio, Fred Gwynne, Lane Smith and Bruce McGill – it’s amazing that an actress whose biggest credit up to this point was a season on A DIFFERENT WORLD shined the brightest here.

The movie is still absolutely quotable for me. The interactions between Pesci’s Vinny Gambini – fresh out of law school Italian attorney who’s never tried a case – and Gwynne’s down home country judge are fun, as Judge Chamberlain Haller tries to figure out what makes this brash, contemptuous lawyer tick. And Lane Smith – who would go on to play Perry White in LOIS & CLARK – THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – is completely likable, even though he’s doing whatever he can to convict the two New Yorkers on a murder charge.

Honestly, there really isn’t a villain in MY COUSIN VINNY. The story plays out as it does, but you never feel like anyone is playing the bad guy. Sure the prosecutor and the police are trying to get a conviction, but they aren’t railroading the two kids. They’re just following what they think is the evidence toward an open-and-shut case. And when the truth comes out that the boys are innocent and two other men who match their description were arrested in Georgia, no one is mad and no one tries to make the situation worse. Everyone just seems happy that they can put the whole mess behind them.

The closest thing to a bad guy the movie has is the guy Mona Lisa hustled in pool, who refused to pay the $200 she won. But even he was played as an oaf and Vinny eventually just decks him and takes his money.

Not having a clear-cut antagonist is a little weird, but it really works here.

Really, the biggest thing that struck me when I watched the movie earlier was how rooted in stereotypes of big city folk coming into a small town in the south. I’m honestly not sure how MY COUSIN VINNY would play in most of middle America. Everyone in Alabama is treated like a backwoods rube who, despite attempts to establish their intellectual credentials, seem to make some pretty basic mistakes from ridiculous assumptions.

I suppose the New Yorkers don’t come off any better, but baseless smug superiority almost always seems less effacing than country hicks.

Even with the rampant stereotyping of all sides, it’s still a fun movie. It’s an average story, though, lifted up by a great cast who give performances well above what’s merited here.