My Cousin Vinny (1992)

5 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Cousin Vinny” is a comedy that relies not just on the comedic talents of the actors, but on its script. This is one of those comedies where the screenplay—material and dialogue—is funny, whether the film itself stinks or not. Luckily, while “My Cousin Vinny” has its problems, it also plenty of laughs and great acting that make it a treat to watch.

The movie opens as two young men on their way to college stop at a gas station in a small town in Alabama. Shortly after they leave, they’re arrested. At first, they think it’s because of the can of tuna that they didn’t realize they’d lifted from the store. But they soon realize—though, a little later—that they’re suspected of murdering the store’s clerk. (I love this exchange: “You think we’re being booked for shoplifting?” “No, you’re being booked for shoplifting. I’m being booked for accessory to shoplifting.”) So the boys—played by Ralph Macchio (“The Karate Kid”) and Mitchell Whitfield—need a lawyer to defend their case. Luckily, Macchio has a cousin named Vinny (Joe Pesci)…who has graduated law school, but passed the bar only after the eighth time. This is his first trial. He lies to the judge (Fred Gwynne) about handling plenty of cases and is held in contempt for sporting his leather jacket in the courtroom. But who knows? He could have what it takes to win this case in the end.

Accompanying Vinny from New York to Alabama is his fiancée named Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). She has a loud mouth, a hard Brooklyn accent, and a tendency to stick out in this small town like a sore thumb (with her sexy attire and camera in hand), but she’s supportive and lends Vinny a helping hand, even though Vinny is reluctant to give it. But who knows? She might know a thing or two that could be important to the case.

The running joke is that Vinny is a terrible lawyer, since this is his first case and the boys’ lives rest in his hands to prove their innocence. Surprisingly, this works. Any smaller case, like robbery or drugs, and this probably would’ve proven to be too believable to be funny—I could be wrong. But in this murder case, the more unbelievable it is, the more agitated and nervous Vinny is, and the funnier it is as a result.

Pesci’s funny, but even funnier is Marisa Tomei as Vinny’s fiancée Lisa, who is just lovable. The character’s street-smart personality and her ways of interpreting things or dealing with things make for more-than-effective comic timing. There is not a false note in Tomei’s performance—beauty, brains, and wisecracks are what the character requires. Tomei delivers more than that. She’s perfect in this movie, and she displays great chemistry with Pesci.

There are many laughs in this script. Highlights include: Whitfield’s misunderstanding when he first meets Vinny (while in jail); Vinny’s “explanation” after being asked how his clients plead; Lisa’s reaction when Vinny goes hunting with the prosecutor (Lane Smith); Gwynne’s misreading of the word “yoot” (“youth”); the public defender (Austin Pendleton) not letting out a complete sentence half the time. Plenty of good, funny stuff in this movie, and I haven’t listed them all. It wouldn’t be fair. But I can say that the final scenes of this movie, in which the getaway car is in question, are brilliantly written and very funny as well.

“My Cousin VInny” does have a few hit-and-miss jokes and the movie loses focus of the two boys, so it’s a little hard to worry about them. But with Pesci and Tomei’s performances and a script with plenty of goods, “My Cousin Vinny” is a terrific comedy about trial and error.

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