By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: Don’t hire this lawyer.
A huge and much talked about hit upon its release in 1992, My Cousin Vinny is the story about two traveling college friends (Ralph Macchio, Mitchell Whitfield) who, upon going through Alabama, get implicated to the murder of a convenience store attendant that they did not commit. They’re only hope is calling up Macchio’s uncle Vinny from Brooklyn (Joe Pesci) who has only been practicing law for six weeks and has never tried a case. Even worse is the fact that his brash Brooklyn sensibilities do not mesh well with the trial’s very strict, no-nonsense Judge (wonderfully played by Fred Gwynne in his last film role).
One thing that stood out right away with me was the way this film did not fall into age old stereotypes despite being in a setting that seemed ripe for it. There is not a single mention of racism anywhere. Instead the film seems to want to focus on a more contemporary Alabama where the African American characters are, by and large, on equal footing with the whites as well as having a white Sheriff who is not redneck, corrupt, or ignorant. The two college kids also thankfully break rank from the typical Hollywood films of that era. These kids are not the rowdy, partying, beer swilling, sex crazed teens that you usually see, but instead believable and most of all likable. I found them to be so likable that I wished they were in the film more, unfortunately after the first twenty-five minutes they pretty much disappear until the very end, which I found disappointing. Still it was nice seeing Macchio growing out of his Karate Kid role and looking a little more filled out and mature.
I also want to give mention to the excellent on-location shooting. Although it was not actually filmed in Alabama, but instead the neighboring state of Georgia, it still nicely captures the look and feel of the south and it does it right from the start. I have often said good on-location shooting (as opposed to the annoying Hollywood studio back-lot) can enhance just about any story and help create what’s almost like another character. I have been to Alabama recently and enjoyed the many references to the red, muddy soil that is everywhere down there and the scene where the Pesci character gets his car stuck in it is great.
The comedy runs pretty well, but is much stronger at the start. The conversations the boys have with the police are quite amusing as is Whitfield’s initial dialogue with the Pesci character who he doesn’t know is a lawyer and instead thinks he is a cellmate there to ‘break them in’. I also enjoyed the running gag dealing with Vinny using his debating skills to try and ‘negotiate a settlement’ with a tough guy at a bar who refuses to pay up after losing a bet.
Unfortunately there is also a lot of comedy that does not work. The running gag dealing with Vinny and his girlfriend constantly being awakened in the early morning hours by some unexpected noise at each of the places they stay at starts to get real redundant and silly.
There is also another segment featuring actor Austin Pendleton who plays one of the court appointed attorneys and, without warning or any logical explanation, starts to stutter terribly when he tries to give his opening argument. I was genuinely shocked to see Pendleton take this part since he was a stutterer in real like and didn’t overcome the problem until he was well into his forties. He even starred in a 1983 film entitled Talk to Me about a man coping with the affliction. Apparently Pendleton did protest the scene and even labeled it a ‘sick joke’, but eventually did it anyways because he needed the work, which was unfortunate because it comes off as being forced and uncomfortable. Most lightweight comedies, which in the end this is, run about ninety minutes yet this film runs a hundred and twenty minutes, which is too long. Had some of these so called ‘funny’ scenes been cut it would have shortened the film nicely and even strengthened it.
I should also mention Marisa Tomei who won the Oscar for best supporting actress as Pesci’s girlfriend. Now her performance isn’t bad, but I didn’t see anything really outstanding about it either. She spends most of the time wearing garish and gaudy outfits, speaking in a Brooklyn accent that borders on annoying, and playing the caricature of a ditzy girlfriend. Only at the end does she become a little more dimensional when she inexplicably displays some amazingly detailed knowledge about automobiles that for me just didn’t ring true. I would have given the Oscar to Fred Gwynne, TV’s Herman Munster, as the judge. Some of his courtroom exchanges with the Pesci character are the best parts in the film. I also really like Lane Smith in the role as the prosecutor. His performances are never flashy, but he is always reliable and gives his characters a nice, quiet dignity. He is also a genuine southerner, so he fits into his role more easily.
The film is overall passable. I had no idea how it was going to turn out and it kept me intrigued. However, once the resolution was made and the mystery solved, I wasn’t completely satisfied. I was hoping it would be like The Vanishing, the excellent 1988 film from the Netherlands, that went back and reenacted how it all took place. It would have at least been nice had the film put in a little red herring at the beginning, so the viewer could have tried to figure it out themselves instead of just throwing in a wrap-up that seemed too convenient.
If you are fans of Joe Pesci then you’ll enjoy this movie a little bit more. His performance as the volatile character in Goodfellas is so etched in my mind that I have a hard time adjusting to him in likable roles, or comedy. However he manages to be quite engaging throughout.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: March 13, 1992
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video