1 Hr., 59 Mins.
My Cousin Vinny
y Cousin Vinny (1992) is a broadly humorous, 85-minute screwball comedy that happens to be two hours long. Here, the plot meanders either because screenwriter Dale Launer’s aware that its paramount dramas could only last as long as an NCIS (2003-present) two-parter played back to back, or because most movies trying as hard as they can to get attention from the Academy are generally more than 90 frivolous minutes.
But like the other big courtroom movie of 1992, Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, My Cousin Vinny is an intelligent but facile genre entry that knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s the kind of movie that immediately announces that it’s going to be predictable and eager to please, but against our better judgments do we end up liking it anyway.
In the case of A Few Good Men, there was a lot to lap up: Aaron Sorkin’s acidic and fast dialogue; the infuriating storyline; the smartly overwrought performances from Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore. But with My Cousin Vinny, most of the appeal comes from headliners Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei, who’re just a couple steps away from convincing us they’re acting in a The Godfather (1972) parody written and directed by the Zucker brothers.
In the movie, Pesci is lawyer Vinny Gambini and Tomei is his girl, Mona Lisa Vito. They’re leather-clad, tough-talking New Yawkers who, when we first meet them, are out of their element: they’re stuck in a small town in Alabama, trying to make themselves useful.
Their sticking around is in the name of Vinny’s cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) and his pal Stan (Mitchell Whitfield), who are being held in a cramped cell presumably for murder. See, the twosome’d been road-tripping from their native New York to California in a beat-up convertible to nab scholarships at their college of choice, UCLA, with no problems to speak of. But after making a pit stop at a rundown minute mart in the above mentioned southern state, they were pulled over and framed for a robbery-gone-sour that occurred just moments after they hit the road again.
With no money and not much support from the fuzz, Vinny, set to defend them, is their only hope. But having him around brings even more unease: the man’s failed his bar exam six times, has only taken on personal injury cases, and has actually only practiced law for a handful of weeks. Plus, the judge (Fred Gwynne, long-faced and gruff) at the head of Bill and Stan’s case thinks Vinny’s a joke, given his propensity for wearing the clothes of a guest attending a Corleone family wedding and his bad habit of falling asleep while the prosecutor’s going through the motions.
Perhaps you can see where this is going: Vinny will, against the odds, eventually overcome his limitations and become the subject of an inspiring underdog story, filled with plenty of formulaic, would-be rousing scenes essentially there to make us grin and be tempted to applaud. For a while, this pandering to the clear-cut I-know-where-this-is-going tenet is irksome, especially since all is filmed with the same stylistic imagination of one of those CBS police procedurals where the leading crime fighter sure is wacky and everyone mistakenly underestimates their capabilities.
But then we notice that we actually want Vinny to win – he turns out to be self-aware enough to subtextually inform us that he knows that he’s an underdog, and as such he has to prove himself. We also notice that the movie is characterized by a sort of faux Preston Sturges-esque comedy that’s actually much smarter (and funnier) than we’re initially groomed to believe as jaded viewers.
We grow to like it. And it's all grounded by Pesci, sending up his gorilla-chested mafioso persona with a perfect balance of satire and seriousness, and by Tomei, long-fingernailed and gum-smacking and street smart and lovable and Oscar winning. Macchio and Whitfield are a bore, sure, but when you have heart to hearts between Pesci and Tomei as rib-tickling as the ones exhibited here, who cares about how uninteresting the kids at the center of an unrealistic murder subplot is?
The last half-hour’s a particular showcasing of all My Cousin Vinny does well, marrying the predictable but nonetheless chirpy escapism of the film with unexpected wit. Nothing here’s groundbreaking, but everything’s still fun, never insulting one’s intelligence. A good time at the movies this is, and how rare it is that the company’s this fine. B