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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: My Cousin Vinny (1992)

PUBLISHED: 08:25 02 June 2018

The Oscar-winning comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century Fox

The Oscar-winning comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century Fox

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different

Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei as the bickering lovers in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century FoxJoe Pesci and Marisa Tomei as the bickering lovers in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century Fox

My Cousin Vinny; dir: Jonathan Lynn; starring: Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio, Fred Gwynne. Cert: 15 (1992)

Most great films know they are great. They are keen to display their gravitas as soon as the film company logo disappears from the screen. Many films are made and come to the screen with a definite air of importance about them. They deal with heavyweight subjects in a sombre matter – heavyweight actors scowl and furrow their brows and earnestly seek the truth in every line they utter.

It’s hard work, for them as well as the audience. These are films looking for awards, looking for that all important Oscar recognition, looking to go down in history as an important movie – but they are not always terribly enjoyable.

Joe Pesci prepares to defind his cousin on a robbery charge in conservative Alabama in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century FoxJoe Pesci prepares to defind his cousin on a robbery charge in conservative Alabama in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Occasionally, a well-made mainstream movie with no apparent pretensions, suddenly leaps off the screen and wins a place in your heart just because it is a brilliantly entertaining night at the cinema. Classic Hollywood used to do it all the time with films like Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Some Like It Hot, the list is endless – you know it’s a classic because it’s a film you return to time and again.

One such a film is My Cousin Vinny, directed by Yes Minister scribe Jonathan Lynn, and plays as a rom-com crossed with Good Fellas and a courtroom drama. Strong characters and the ingenious mix of genres means that immediately it offers up something different and landed co-star Marisa Tomei a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

It’s a film in which Pesci and Tomei hold centrestage for the entire film as a pair of battling bickering lovers. Only Fred Gwynne (of Herman Munster-fame) as a wily old southern judge ever threatens to steal our attention away from their entertaining verbal tennis.

Fred Gwynne as The Judge in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century FoxFred Gwynne as The Judge in the comedy-courtroom drama My Cousin Vinny. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Joe Pesci stars as a wannabe top flight lawyer. Born in the Bronx, educated at night school, he’s never going to get into a prestigious law firm – except if he can find a landmark case to win. Such an opportunity presents itself when his young cousin (Ralph Macchio) and his friend (Mitchell Whitfield), two innocent college students, find themselves implicated in a convenience store robbery in rural Alabama.

The circumstantial evidence looks damning, but Pesci is undeterred. He and Tomei hit the road and soon swap the mean streets of New York for the relatively unsophisticated world of the Deep South.

The young Ralph Macchio is rightly concerned when Pesci doesn’t turn out to be the razor-sharp trial lawyer he expected. Instead he’s a plea-bargain, ambulance-chasing attorney who has failed his bar exam five times.

To make matters worse, he also antagonises the judge who is a stickler for procedure and the correct dress in court. A black open neck shirt, a black leather jacket and a gold chain is not his idea of suitable and dignified attire.

Despite, his total lack of legal experience, Pesci, with the reluctant help of Mona Lisa Vito (Tomei), sifting through the details of the case and they realise that no-one can really identify his cousin at the scene of the crime, all the evidence is circumstantial but the trick is proving it – particularly as the judge seems increasingly hostile.

After one belligerent exchange Pesci is dispatched to the cells for contempt of court leaving his beauty salon nail technician girlfriend as the only person available to search out and collect evidence for the defence.

What is so good about My Cousin Vinny is that although it’s a comedy of manners, everything has been thought through. The film works as a romantic comedy but equally it is also a very satisfying courtroom drama. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy. You are never quite sure if Pesci is going to pull it out of the bag at the last minute.

It’s a nice touch that it is Marisa Tomei’s street smart Mona Lisa Vito who brings in the vital evidence rather than Pesci’s fast-talking lawyer which gives the pair an intellectual parity which gives the film some added substance. It’s clear that Mona Lisa Vito is not a vacuous beauty parlour worker and is not content to be regarded just as somebody’s girlfriend.

It’s easy to see why Marisa Tomei won her Oscar for the part but equally Pesci is also on top form as a man completely out of his depth and so inexperienced in a proper courtroom that he neglects to stand when the judge enters.

The movie saves its best laughs for the final day of the trial, when witness after witness steadily reinforces the prosecution case. Gwynne’s dour face and mobile mouth in these long courtroom scenes is especially good.

In the end no-one is played as dim. They’re smart, in their own ways, and as they drive off you wish we could catch up with these characters again but equally we know we shouldn’t because My Cousin Vinny is a little piece of magic and a sequel would just spoil it.

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