by RICHARD WINTERS
A huge and much talked about hit upon its release in 1992, My Cousin Vinny is a comedy about two college friends Billy and Stan (played respectively by Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield) who are traveling through Alabama when they become implicated in the murder of a convenience store attendant; needless to say, they’re innocent. Their only hope is to call up Billy’s uncle Vinny (Joe Pesci) in Brooklyn. Vinny 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 very strict, no-nonsense judge (wonderfully played by Fred Gwynne in his last film role).
One thing that stood out to me right away was that this film did not fall into familiar Southern stereotypes despite 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 whites. There is even a white Sheriff who is not redneck, corrupt, or ignorant. The two college kids also thankfully break rank from the typical Hollywood films of the period. These kids are not the rowdy, partying, beer swilling, sex crazed teens that you usually see, but instead believable and most of all likable young men. 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 here by looking a little more filled out and playing a more mature character.
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, the film 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 a setting that is 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. The scene where Vinny 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 Stan’s initial dialogue with Vinny who he doesn’t know is a lawyer and instead thinks is a fellow cellmate there to “break them in.” I also enjoyed the running gag of 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 gets real redundant and silly. There is also another segment that doesn’t work that features actor Austin Pendleton as one of the court appointed attorneys who, 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 life 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 anyway because he needed the work, which was double unfortunate because it comes off as being very forced and uncomfortable.
Most lightweight comedies, which in the end is what My Cousin Vinny is, run about ninety minutes. This film runs a hundred and twenty minutes, which is just too long. Had some of these so called “funny” scenes been cut it would have shortened the film nicely and strengthened it.
I should also mention Marisa Tomei who won the Oscar for best supporting actress as Vinny’s girlfriend Mona. Now her performance isn’t bad, but I didn’t see anything really outstanding about it either. She spends most of the time wearing very garish and gaudy outfits, speaking in a Brooklyn accent that borders on being annoying, and playing the caricature of a ditzy girlfriend. Only at the end does Mona 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 rather have seen an Oscar go to Fred Gwynne, TV’s Herman Munster, as the judge. Some of his courtroom exchanges with Vinny 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 take a page from The Vanishing, the excellent 1988 film from the Netherlands, and go back and reenact how the crime 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 a fan of Joe Pesci then you’ll enjoy this movie a little bit more than I did. His performance as the volatile wannabe made man in Goodfellas is so etched in my mind that I have a hard time adjusting to him in likable roles, or comedy for that matter. However he manages to be quite engaging throughout.