25 years later, My Cousin Vinny remains one of the funniest and sharpest comedies from the 90s with one of the best comedic ensembles of all-time.
If there is one thing comedy filmmakers in the 80s and 90s loved, it was “fish out of water” movies — that wonderfully simple plot device where you put a character in a scenario, time, or place that’s completely alien to them. Just take a look at some of the biggest movies from the time period — Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers. But for me, one always rose above the rest. Whether it’s because I was exposed to it way too early in life — thanks, Mom and Dad — or because it’s such an easy scenario to pull comedy out of, My Cousin Vinny remains one of my favorite comedies of all time.
Billy Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchel Whitfield) are on a road trip visiting colleges in their green 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. As they are driving through Alabama, they stop at a convenience store to get snacks. Soon after they leave, someone robs the store and shoots the clerk. Billy and Stan are pulled over and arrested by the police who suspect they committed the crime. After a confusing — and hilarious — interrogation scene where Billy accidently confesses to the murder — he thought the police were referring to a can of tuna he forgot to pay for — the duo is arrested for murder. And since it’s the deep south, they have the death penalty.
Fear not, though, Billy happens to have a lawyer in the family — his cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci). The one problem is that Vinny has never been to trial and thinks that this murder trial will be “a good learning experience.” Unfortunately for him, he has to deal with the by-the-books judge (Fred Gwynne), his saucy girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), and hogs, factory whistles, and trains that wake him up a 5:30 every morning.
Screenwriter Dale Launer had the difficult task of balancing an actually compelling courtroom comedy with the New Yorker in the deep south premise that underlines the story. He succeeds because he doesn’t place the comedy in the scenario. Instead, he places it in the characters. The movie has actually been praised by lawyers for its accuracy in legal strategy and courtroom procedure with Max Kennerly saying, “the movie is close to reality even in its details. Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, A Few Good Men, everything that happens in the movie could happen—and often does happen—at trial.” The scenario and story aren’t ridiculous, but Vinny Gambino and Mona Lisa Vito certainly are.
Joe Pesci is integral to the success of the movie as the easily riled-up Brooklynite Vinny. Perpetually cranky and completely out of his depth, Pesci’s Vinny is churlish, but you can’t help but love and root for him. That’s because Pesci makes Vinny endearing, in a way. Past his black-on-black outfit, gold chains, and thick New York accent is a man with insecurities and a good heart. But a key element to making Vinny a successful character is his supportive, but equally bombastic girlfriend Mona Lisa. Marisa Tomei, who shockingly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, deserved every bit of the award. Case in point, the “biological clock” monologue. It’s a ridiculous scene and Tomei plays it to its full worth — yelling, stomping, and all. But where most comedic actors would leave it there and call it a day, Tomei ends the rant with a face of desperation that adds real weight to what she just said. Their banter and relationship are the lifeblood of the film.
Of course, though, Launer also gives them comedy gold to work with. It’s not even the one-liners that are the funniest parts.He’s incredibly patient. One of my favorite jokes involves Stan being sexually assaulted in the prison. He spends an entire scene outlining that fear. Then, in the next scene, Vinny arrives while Bill is sleeping. Stan mistakingly thinks he’s there to sleep with them. Then, comedy ensues. It seems like every joke Launer sets up for the characters is followed by a payoff performed with incredible timing by the actors and is well worth the wait.
Nowadays, it’s expecting to have a scene stealer — Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Zack Galifinakis in The Hangover — but it seems that every supporting performer steals their scene. It’s nearly impossible not to break down laughing when Austin Pendleton, as a public defender Stan has hired, stammers through his opening statement or when Bruce McGill as the town sheriff tries to coerce a confession out of Bill and Stan. But I’m adamant in saying that Fred Gwynne gives one of the best Supporting performances in a comedy ever. From his facial expressions to his line delivery — “what’s a yout?”— it’s a masterclass in making the most of the material you’re given.
Comedy movies have a hard time standing the test of time — tastes change, attitudes change, society changes. Still, 25 years later, My Cousin Vinny remains a deliciously hilarious courtroom romp. You could probably shave 20 minutes off the running time and the second half is definitely stronger than the first, but comedies aren’t made like this anymore. Screenwriters have become so obsessed with one-liners that the set-up/punchline joke has been all but irradiated. Well, My Cousin Vinny proves that well-written and superbly delivered jokes belong in comedies. Do yourself a favor, watch this movie and be delighted for a couple hours. I mean, you “youts” need some quality comedies in your lives.