In the 1992 film, My Cousin Vinny, two college students from New York City, Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothstein (Mitchell Whitfield), make the mistake of driving through Alabama. The two students stop off at a convenience store. When the clerk is subsequently shot dead during a robbery, Bill and Stan are arrested for the crime. The viewers know they’re innocent. Bill and Stan know they’re innocent. But the entire state of Alabama seems to be determined to send Bill and Stan to prison for life.
Fortunately, Bill’s cousin, Vinny (Joe Pesci, star of Half Nelson), is a lawyer. Unfortunately, he just recently passed the bar exam and he has yet to actually try a case. Still, Vinny and his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), come down to Alabama. Vinny takes the case, lying to the judge (Fred Gwynne) about his qualification as a trial attorney. Vinny is momentarily impressed when the prosecutor (Lane Smith) shares with him all of the files about the case. “It’s called disclosure, dickhead!” Lisa snaps at him, revealing that she actually has more common sense than Vinny. That becomes increasingly important as Vinny tries to keep Bill and Stan from spending the rest of their lives in prison.
To be honest, considering how much I complain about stereotypical portrayals of the South, I really shouldn’t like My Cousin Vinny as much as I do. Almost every character in the film is a stereotype to some extent or another, from the farmers and rednecks who take the witness stand to Fred Gwynne’s no-nonsense judge who rules that Vinny is in contempt of court because he’s wearing a leather jacket. Fortunately, though, the Southern stereotypes don’t bother me because both Vinny and Lisa are New York stereotypes. Just as the judge and the townspeople seem to confirm every prejudice that someone like Vinny would have against the South, Vinny seems to be the epitome of everything that people in the South dislike about the North. When Vinny first shows up on the scene, he’s loud and brash and obnoxious. But, as the film progresses, Vinny reveals himself to not only be a better attorney than anyone was expecting but he also calms down and adjusts to the more relaxed pace of life in the country. Just as Vinny reveals himself to be not as bad as everyone originally assumed, both the Judge and the prosecutor are also allowed to reveal some hidden depths. Neither one is the cardboard authority figure that viewers might expect. The Judge does sincerely want justice to be done and the prosecutor sincerely wants to keep the county safe, even if he is prosecuting two innocent men. Just as Vinny learns not to be too quick to judge them, they learn not to be too quick to judge Vinny. The end message is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and deserves a fair hearing, whether in a court of law or just in the courts of public and private opinion. It’s not a bad message. In fact, it’s one that more than a few people could still stand to learn today.
Of course, the best thing about the film is Marisa Tomei, who not brings a lot of energy to the film but whose hair is amazing and whose clothes are to die for. Tomei won an Oscar for her performance in My Cousin Vinny, a victory that was so controversial that there were unfounded rumors that presenter Jack Palance had read the wrong name by mistake. (As we all learned a few years ago when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway actually did read the wrong winner, the accountants aren’t going to let anyone get away with that.) Watching the film last night, it was obvious to me that Tomei deserved that Oscar because Lisa is the heart of the film. Pesci, Gwynne, and Lane Smith are all give good performances but, without Marisa Tomei’s performance, My Cousin Vinny would ultimately just be another culture clash comedy. A lesser actress would have just played Lisa as being a stereotype. But Tomei turned Lisa into the most believable and sincere character in the film. While Lisa won the case, Tomei saved the movie.
(And needless to say, I’m a fan of any movie that features a Lisa saving the day.)
My Cousin Vinny holds up as an enjoyable film. Watch it the next time you’re losing faith in humanity.
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