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Non-Review Review: My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny still works after all these years, I think, because it’s pretty broad and universal in its humour. It’s essentially two types of fish-out-of-water film blended together, simultaneously documenting a street-smart guy tangling with the red tape of legal bureaucracy, and offering a standard city-slickers adventure with “Noo Yawker” Vinny and his girlfriend adjusting to life in the Deep South. My Cousin Vinny is funny and frank, but never offensively so. It’s aware that it’s trading in caricatures and stereotypes, but never seems too mean in its portrayal of anybody.

Giving the legal system the fingers...

Marisa Tomei famously won an Oscar for her supporting performance here. Apparently it was such an out-of-left-field win that various urban myths sprung up around the events of the night, none of which are especially fair to Miss Tomei. I’ve never had a problem with Tomei’s performance. This isn’t her best work, but she is pitch-perfect in a comedic supporting role. That said, it’s Joe Pesci who carries the film in the lead role as Vincent “Vinny” Gambini, the slick Brooklyn wise guy trying to get his cousin acquitted of a murder charge in Alabama.

Pesci is a tremendous actor, and seeing him used so well here only serves to remind me of how cruelly he has been misused in the past. Scorsese was able to provide him with substantial material, allowing the actor to pick up a well-deserved Oscar for his work on Goodfellas, but Pesci’s filmography never really feels as impressive as his talent deserves. Here, it’s Pesci as the shrewd out-of-town huckster who must sell the film to the audience. The character of Vincent Gambini is a collection of stereotypes – short, argumentative, aggressive, quick-witted, cynical. They’re effective, but they’ll only carry the film so far. It’s Pesci’s performance as the little tough guy that bunts the film over the line.

Love on trial...

It’s the type of role that might invite a scenery-chewing performance from a lesser actor. Instead, Pesci plays Vinny in a much looser fashion. Yes, Gambini is broad-strokes parody of the image of a Brooklyn wise guy, with a mouth that moves faster than most people’s brains, but Pesci never over-plays it. He’s clever, he’s shrewd, and you never under-estimate Gambini as played by Pesci. Despite how silly he might look, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Sure, he’s cracking jokes at the expense of the locals, and he’s trying to hold together a facade that is crumbling around him, but Pesci has the eyes of a guy watching all the angles.

My Cousin Vinny works because it avoids the obvious clichés that one expects from a film like this. Despite the prejudice of the New Yorkers charged with murder, the local police department is not corrupt. The prosecution lawyer isn’t coldly cynical or gleefully evil as he works to secure the death penalty. Even Vinny himself, who has been known to exaggerate or stretch the truth, is revealed to have been remarkably honest with the local judge when recounting the story of how he came to practice law. Everybody in the film feels like more than just a crudely-drawn parody, and I think that’s why the tried-and-true culture clash works so very well here.

Not a tough cell...

Of course, it helps that jokes are hilarious. I know it’s crass, but I still love the comedy of mistaken identity when Vinny visits the two young college students in prison. “I mean, you’re getting $@%!ed one way or the other,” Vinny offers, in one of my favourite punchlines of the nineties. Similarly, there’s something charming about the way that Vinny and his girlfriend treat arguing as a form of foreplay, or the extended discussion over grits. Given, I had as much experience with grits as Vinny had, I found it quite educational.

Indeed, even ignoring the wonderful sense of humour and the great performances, My Cousin Vinny is just a very smart film. Indeed, it cleverly sets up its resolution better than the vast majority of serious legal thrillers, with virtually every aspect of Vinny’s defense carefully and meticulously set up, but without ever drawing attention to it. What seem like throw-away jokes become vital pieces of evidence in putting this puzzle together, and I think the movie deserves credit for that, on top of all the other stuff it has going for it.

Courting the judge...

My Cousin Vinny is a wonderful comedy of manners, one that works on multiple levels, but really succeeds because of its intelligence and sophistication. While it’s certainly crass, it’s also well-observed and insightful. It has a degree of depth that’s sorely missing from most similar films.

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