My Cousin Vinny (1992)

reviewed by
John Ulmer


MY COUSIN VINNY
| 4/5 stars |
REVIEW BY JOHN ULMER

I like character comedies. I like talkative comedies. I like comedies that take place in standard areas that serve simply as a backdrop allowing for characters to get into intelligent comedic arguments and/or discussions. I like intelligent comedies. "My Cousin Vinny" is smart and talkative; in one of the better scenes, Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancee Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) get into an argument over a dripping faucet. I love this stuff.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy other forms of comedy. I respect them when done correctly. But for me, character-driven stories and conversations has always been the strongest example of pure filmmaking; of getting inside the heads of others.

Billy (Ralph Macchio) and his buddy Stan are traveling through Wahzoo, Alabama, when they are unjustly picked up for the murder of a local gas station attendant. Thrown into the slammer, their only hope is one man: Vinny (Pesci), an energetic, smart-mouthed little guy who happens to be Billy's cousin and a lawyer. He assures them that he'll get them off the hook, despite the fact that he's never even entered a courtroom before. "How long have you been practicing?" Stan asks. "Almost six weeks," Vinny says.

Vinny's brought his fiancee, Mona Lisa Vito (Tomei), to Wahzoo with him. They rent out a room at a local motel and get into heated debates whilst the fate of Vinny's cousin and his friend rest with him. At the first day of trial, Vinny says absolutely nothing to help his case. The prosecution's lawyer (Joe Don Baker) makes Vinny look like a schmuck, quizzing witnesses over important eyewitness accounts. Vinny just sits there.

He's not a very good lawyer, as we can tell from the start. And the court judge (Fred Gwynne in his last film role) isn't too enthused with his courtroom manner. But he gets better as time goes on, with the help of his smart fiancee and with the cheering of his cousin. Vinny proves he's a pretty good lawyer by the time everything's over.

I didn't enjoy "My Cousin Vinny" as much as I should have. Taking everything into account, it is a very good comedy. It's built with a strong foundation of a witty script; funny characters and clever dialogue, not to mention an overall joyful feel to it. Nevertheless, I wasn't as enthralled on my first viewing of the film as I had hoped I would be. My second viewing, last night, was better.

Joe Pesci is perfect as Vinny, a lovable clown who prides himself in the fact that he thinks he knows everything, but most of the time his pride backfires when he finds out he's not quite as clever as he thinks. Marisa Tomei (who won an Oscar for her supporting role) is hilarious as the straight guy (or gal) of the story. Fred Gwynne is great; this was his final appearance on film, as he died soon after filming wrapped.

The movie has some very funny cultural comparisons, the most evident one the argument over the meaning of the word "youths," which Vinny pronounces "yutes." There's also a good scene when Vinny and Mona Lisa first arrive in Wahzoo and step out of their car clad in leather and jewelry and general city clothing. "You stick out like a sore thumb around here," he says. "At least I've got cowboy boots." Lisa looks at him and says, "Oh, yeah, you blend."

Another fine aspect of this film is how strong the courtroom scenes are. Instead of serving simply as a premise for the film to induce chuckles, it has some very interesting and thoughtful scenes, probably enough to go around for ten courtroom movies. There's a discussion towards the end about cars and their tires that had me wondering how the scriptwriters did such detailed research.

In many ways, this movie reminded me of the 1987 comedy "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," which I am always bringing up in my reviews. But somehow they're closely related. I think it's the dialogue. It's like John Hughes himself said: "I always liked character stories best - put two or more people in a room and get them talking." I like those movies, too. I've always liked them. I like when characters get into lengthy, deep debates about trivial things. I love comedic conversations. "My Cousin Vinny" has a lot of 'em. It's a nice distraction from the overblown goofball comedies flooding the market today that lack any sort of cohesion and wit necessary to make a strong comedy. "My Cousin Vinny" has got it all.

- John Ulmer
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