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REVIEW: In a dusty green Buick convertible, NYU students Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) and Billy (Ralph Macchio) are driving through the South on a road trip to UCLA, where they just received scholarships. Things are looking good for the two. The weather is great, they’ve got a lot of time, but funds are scarce so they have to count their pennies. In Beecham County, Alabama, they stop in at a countryside general store for some supplies. With arms fully loaded, Billy squeezes a can of tuna in his coat pocket but then forgets to pay for it, not noticing until they are a piece down the road. They laugh it off until behind them a cop car emerges and pulls them over. Not wanting to cause any trouble, the boys are eager to comply and Billy immediately confesses to the minor crime. The sheriff is elated, albeit a little surprised, and wants to get the details straight before booking him. Everything is in order. Billy’s got the time of the crime down, the reason why he did and the chain of events surrounding it. Well, everything except the part where he shot the clerk. Wait, what? Shot the clerk? Yup, it seems that after the boys left the store, someone robbed the place and killed the employee.
Now Billy and Stan are being charged with murder. So much for the can of tuna. Out of options they call for help. In from New Jersey comes Vinny (Joe Pesci), who is, as the title suggests, the cousin. He’s also a lawyer, or at least in one on paper. It took him six years to pass the Bar and this will be his first time in a courtroom. What he lacks in skills though, he more than makes up for in bravado . . . and a sassy fiancé name Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) who is as eye-catching as she is full of spit and vinegar. They are both out of their element in the deep south and run afoul of just about everything they come across. Once in court things naturally unravel and cultures clash as is all very expected. Vinny, inexperienced and generally out of touch with how things operate, crosses paths with the judge, who won’t tolerate just about anything Vinny says and does, and who can blame him? Vinny is a train wreck of stereotypes and fish out of water caricatures. He dresses like a mob hit-man, talks like he’s a Jersey dockworker, and is such an exaggerated archetype he’s practically a parody. He’s found in contempt two times in two days and Mona Lisa has to bail him out. Vinny says he learning the system, but the two boys grow restless, with Stan finally ditching Vinny and allowing the public defender to take the case (an even worse mistake). Billy has a talk with his cousin as well and is just about to fire him when Vinny convinces him to have a little trust because of course he does. This is a movie and a death penalty case should be entirely handled by a lawyer who’s never been in court. But wouldn’t you know it? Things start to swing around as Vinny picks apart the eye witness testimonials checking off all the courtroom cliches the movie can muster. Witness one: Caught in a lie about how much time for something to occur. Witness two: Caught in a lie about seeing something he couldn’t have. Witness three: Caught in a lie because of bad eyes. One-by-one, Vinny dismantles the testimony so outrageously easily, it’s a wonder anyone of them ever made it as witnesses. Who checked these people’s stories? It doesn’t matter. The Judge (Gwynne – who is often very funny) is increasingly agitated by Vinny’s unprofessional and unorthodox antics isn’t interested in giving the Northerner some slack. Every day, Vinny ends up back in jail. But it’s worse. The town is a nightmare for getting a decent night’s rest. There’s trains going by, pigs squealing, faucet’s dripping. How could he possibly sleep? Isn’t he from Jersey? Then there’s the hick who cheated Mona Lisa out of some money and wants to fight Vinny instead of paying it back. And speaking of Mona Lisa, the girl is on the sidelines looking for a way to help, feeling that she should be able to do something to give her fiancé a hand. Plus, her biological click is ticking and she wants to get hitched, something Vinny has promised he’ll do after his first courtroom win. Vinny has some stress.
Directed by Jonathan Lynn, My Cousin Vinny is a highly predictable but mostly entertaining little film that is famous for one thing: Marisa Tomei. The young actress pulled a huge surprise win at the Academy Awards and took home an Oscar for her supporting role. Deservedly or not, there is no question that she is the highlight of the movie. Charming, funny, in on the joke, and straight up sexy, Tomei breathes the only real life into the story. This is really because the rest of the cast are plugged into roles we’ve seen so many times we’re not surprised by a thing they say. It’s a shame since there is a host of real talent here and it should have been smarter and sharper. Instead, were stuck with a hard-nosed judge that offers little more that quibbles about fashion and pronunciation and ends up being a collection of reaction shots, a prosecutor that is smarmy and only wants a win but then warms to the good guys, a sheriff that investigates as far as the plot is necessary, two boy who are there only to emote and complain enough so when they finally are absolved they can say their sorry, and a lead who is a nothing more than Joe Pecsi as Joe Pesci, meaning the screenwriter thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a Joe Pesci-like character was stuck in the South?” We love Joe Pesci. He’s created some hugely memorable roles and he has some fine comedic timing, but this movie plays it safe and goes for predictable, cookie-cutter laughs instead of finding really clever ways to make the story humorous. That’s why Tomei shines. She seems utterly out of place and while the girl-with-the-mechanic-father/boyfriend-so-she-literally-knows-everything-about-every-car-and-car-part-in-the-history-of-cars cliche is tiresome, she spews fire and sasses her way into everyone’s heart. The film as a whole suffers though as it can’t seem to find it’s footing, relying on slapstick visuals for giggles yet punctuating the dialogue with often abrasive foul language that sounds like the director was shouting between takes “Be more like Goodfellas!” Formulaic and often absurd, it does have some laughs and rightly revolves around Tomei’s wonderfully giddy performance.
Scene Setup: The first day of court did not go well. Vinny shows up in pleated street pants and a leather jacket, which naturally irks the judge (though why Vinny would consider this appropriate in any court is baffling). It’s the first time Vinny has ever been in a trial and he’s a little clueless about the vocabulary and procedures, and for some reason, can’t not be a smart alec when talking to the ever-increasingly frustrated Judge. When asked to simply state how the two defendants plead, Vinny seems entirely unable to respond in a manner that is both proper and coherent. For his trouble, he gets fined in contempt and sent to jail with a bail of two hundred dollars. It’s up to Mona Lisa to get him out. Seems the two came all the way to Alabama without a dollar to their name, because the only way to raise the money is to go to the local pool hall and hustle a guy. Somehow, she gets Vinny out, but tells him that the guy she worked over at the hall is refusing to pay her. This will not do and Vinny drives over to the place to get her winnings. The fellow is big, brawny, and well, a movie trope Southerner so also a little stupid. Looks like trouble.
The Scene: Up to this point, Vinny has been seen as the goof. He arrived at the jail where Billy and Stan are awaiting trail and appeared to have about as much sense as a No. 2 pencil. He was glib, unapologetic and directly confessed to the fact that he barely passed the bar and has absolutely no courtroom experience. This, naturally, worried the boys, but Billy assured Stan that none of that mattered because Vinny is a Gambini, and Gambini’s are born to argue. When he takes Mona Lisa to the pool hall to confront the hick, we understand right away that Vinny is set up to be a weaker player but must prevail. It’s a question of how. For the one and only time in the film, this actually works simply because Vinny is Joe Pesci. For any fan of film, Pesci is the gold standard for the slightly disturbed, pop-at-any-moment, sociopath. If there is anyone more frightening in film than some of the character’s he portrays, we’ve yet to see him. One need only say the words, “I amuse you?” and . . . well, you’re thinking it right now. Fear. So when he goes to the bar and stands toe-to-toe with the towering redneck, there’s not a person in the audience who is thinking that a pool cue isn’t about get busted over this poor schmuck’s head. But that’s when things take a turn. Vinny is not a gangster and Martin Scorsese isn’t behind the camera (though we’d love to see that movie!). Instead, Vinny uses his brain to outsmart the hayseed and double talks his way out of a fight, setting up a series of rules and obligations that momentarily baffle his opponent.
So why is it significant? For one, we have the built-in expectation that only works because of the actor portraying him. At this point, Pesci had well established himself in dramatic roles, especially as a thug. He’d challenged that expectation in the comedy Home Alone of course, but audiences were still identifying him as a tough guy. With My Cousin Vinny, Pesci plays into the mobster mentality, and clearly into the character type we most expect from him: he’s Italian, seems like a made man, has that same swagger he’s made famous, and even though the film is clearly a comedy, there is the sense that it could have some drama. When he walks into the bar, we expect him to go nuts. That’s who Pesci is. The tension is palpable as he strides across the room toward the hick. It’s gonna come to blows. It has too. Even when he thrusts his palm out and looks to shake hands, smiling all the while, we’re still not comfortable. He was funny in Goodfellas too. We were tricked before. The volcano is going to erupt. But then we realize something special. Vinny is not a fighter. He knows he’s too small, maybe too weak. He’s gonna get a royal beat down if he tries to go toe-to-toe. But what Vinny is . . . is a talker. A good one. Fast, clever, one step ahead, he commands the situation and keeps his opponent off guard right from the start. We hate to say it, but yes Vinny, you amuse us.
More importantly though, we see the Vinny that is going to be the hero. Introduced as a fool, Vinny spent the first third of the film in various states of embarrassment and bad decisions. He’s a buffoon, in over his head, in the dark, and out of place. He’s uncultured, unaware of things like grits and Southern lifestyles. He is just about the last person one might want to help them beat a murder charge. But now, in the pool hall, the evolution begins and we witness the real reason why we can start to feel confident that the boy’s fates are safe. Before this, his attitude was seen as cocky, but here it is not only endearing, but also effective. He so fully controls the situation, it’s nearly dizzying. He deftly runs the room and like a snake charmer, tames and settles the beast, convincing him that they should postpone the agreed upon fight until all monies are procured, something the redneck must take on by himself. All the while, Vinny is also eying a fellow behind the hick who is in a neck brace, sizing him up as a potential client. He uses it for distraction and further spins the redneck into befuddlement. Brilliant. The scene works for many good reasons. For example, we not only see Vinny verbally winning the bout, he uses the encounter to reveal his real knowledge of the law, even explaining to the man, and vicariously to us, terms and strategies. He calmly details the offer/counter-offer relationship and guides the man through the process of their deal like he’s in a courtroom. We begin to see the same strengths that are going to win the real case against the boys. What’s more, is Tomei, who says nothing in the scene but is placed right behind him, expressing our own reaction, mirroring, and therefore approving our sentiments. In a single moment, the slate is wiped and our protagonist emerges. All is going to be just fine.