“Everything That Guy Just Said Is Bullshit”: A Review of My Cousin Vinny

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I watched My Cousin Vinny again this week in honor of its 20th anniversary, being celebrated this week by Abnormal Use. I like this movie a lot, although I can't say it's something I've returned to again and again as I have with classics like Fletch or Anchorman or Faces of Death Part VIII: The Deathening. I think the two things that came to mind when recalling the movie were (1) "two yoots" and (2) Marisa Tomei. Those are great, but there are other good things here too.

It co-stars Ralph Macchio (that's not really one of the good things, it's just a fact), who plays Billy Gambini. He and a friend have been admitted to UCLA and have decided to get there from New York by driving through Alabama. Here we have the movie's first implausibility, because this is a minimum of 330 miles out of the way. The locals question this, too, and the characters explain that they chose to drive through the Deep South because they thought the scenery would be better. Now, granted, the shortest route from New York to L.A. is I-70 to St. Louis and then south to I-40, which would have taken them through such picturesque places as Grange Corner, Indiana; East St. Louis, Illinois; Devil's Elbow, Missouri; and Oklahoma (any part). Are there good alternatives? Not really. But the route through Alabama makes no sense at all unless maybe Billy is a Civil War scholar, which, as Vinny would say, he ain't. But there they are. And through a chain of events involving a can of tuna and some wacky (and also implausible) miscommunications, they are wrongly accused of murder.

Let us now leave these two gentlemen, who play virtually no further role except to look scared.

The attorney they get is Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), the "lawyer in the family," and Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), also New Yorkers and even more out of place in the Deep South. As they drive into town, the car stereo is blaring a kind of music I couldn't identify but which wasn't country (which should not be construed as an admission that country music is "music"). Clearly, this is intended to establish that they are Out of Place, but now it does a better job of establishing that the movie was made in 1992.

Joe Pesci is a great actor. While this movie was being made, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing a much less lovable Italian-American in Goodfellas. The restaurant scene in Goodfellas where Pesci's character reacts to another mobster saying he's a "funny guy" by suddenly seeming to take offense ("I'm funny how, I mean, funny, like I'm a clown, I amuse you?"), terrifying the guy, then turns out to be joking, then does get violent with the restaurant's owner, then also plays that for laughs, is a fantastic great piece of work alternating between humor and menace. Here, he also proves how good he is by doing great work in a totally different role.

Marisa Tomei, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role here, proves how good she is by pretending to be attracted to Joe Pesci.

Okay, not just that, it's just the first thing that occurred to me. I think she's great in this. There has apparently been some debate over the years about whether the performance was Oscar-worthy, but I'm on her side. She has since been nominated for two other Oscars, for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler, and was great in those as well so this was no fluke. (Or, in the words of one commenter at the Internet Movie Database, "Basically what I'm saying is that people who hate on Tomei's Oscar win can suck it.") The excellent performances from these two are what make the movie work.

I'm not sure I agree with the suggestion that the movie is (as Wikipedia puts it) a "realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy." But this is a comedy, and I can't really think of any movies, even serious ones, that have treated legal procedure "realistically," and thank God for that. Here, the trial setting is just a frame for the comedy, which is perfectly fine.

Probably the best lines in the movie are in Vinny's two-sentence opening statement ("Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you."). That's the best he can do anyway, because he slept through the prosecutor's opening. That, by the way, is entirely plausible — as a number of courts have held, it isn't "ineffective assistance" as long as your lawyer has been conscious for a "substantial" amount of the trial. But at least seeing this now, after practicing law for a while, I can't say I would praise it too much for its legal realism. I did like the bit where Vinny's very pleased with himself for talking the prosecutor into handing over his evidence ("I sure would like to get a look at his file …."), which, as Lisa points out (she's been reading about Brady), he's required to do by law anyway.

According to the writer/producer, Dale Launer, he wrote a sequel to My Cousin Vinny but Marisa Tomei didn't want to do it at the time. Probably too much time has passed now, not that sequels are generally all that good. But the original is a fun movie that does get a lot of things right, and features some very funny performances. It is worth a second (or first) look.