(Another supplement to the Fox collection – this one a personal fave of mine, and it’s also grown to become a minor classic to boot. Serendipitous!)
Few actors had the kind of career resurgence that Joe Pesci enjoyed in the early 90s, momentary as it was. Hot on the heels of his Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance as hair-trigger-tempered Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Pesci went on to star in seven films, all within the course of two years – and most of them pretty good. His clear apex during this period, though, has got to be My Cousin Vinny, a surprisingly solid courtroom comedy, which proved to be just as much an announcement of a rising talent in the form of Marisa Tomei, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, as it was a career-reviving break for its headliner.
And Vinny may also be the most epitomal of his performances: it aptly captures the actor’s ability to swerve between both drama and comedy, often within he same scene (although the overriding tone of the film itself is decidedly comical, and broadly so). He also somehow manages to convey an actor’s empathy – and this is no mean feat considering how potentially unlikeable his characters can be. (Didn’t we al feel a little sorry when he got offed in Goodfellas?) And in Vinny we absolutely want his poor schmuck of a lawyer – a completely inept yet earnest fish out of water – to win the case in the end. And (spoiler alert) when he does, it’s a surprisingly euphoric moment – the film’s script has calibrated it that way – but it’s also due to Pesci’s masterful, unassuming handiwork.
Pesci’s lawyer is Vinny Gambini – the last-ditch saving grace to cousin Bill and his best friend Stan, wrongfully accused of murdering a convenience store clerk in the sticks of Alabama. Vinny and his fiancé Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), Brooklynites to the core, make the trek to the deep South – but their hospitality is decidedly not Southern. They’re treated like an alien species anytime they set out, their sleep always seems to get disturbed by blasting noises outside their window, and Vinny has a devil of a time collecting 200 dollars Mona had lost husting pool. And the case isn’t looking so good either – beset by sleep deprivation and his overall greenness in lawyering, Vinny keeps striking out in the courtroom, getting arrested on multiple occasions for contempt of court, and ding nothing to stop the prosecution from aligning a row of witnesses who all attest to seeing the boys’ exact car peel out of the parking lot after the gunshots.
But then Vinny gets his mojo back – and one by one is able to discredit the witnesses’ accounts. When the DA brings in a federal forensics expert on car tires, it looks pretty hopeless – until Vinny calls Mona to the stand who proceeds to confirm, unequivocally, that there can be no conclusive evidence that the defendants’ tires matched the tread marks in question. With the judge (Ed Wynn) close to calling Vinny’s bluff (he had misadvertised himself an accomplished counsel), the dismal of all charges couldn’t be better timed. And now Vinny must answer to another order: his fiance’s demand that they marry, as per his promise to do so after winning his first case.
I’m always a sucker for a Rocky-like crowd-rouser, and My Cousin Vinny is a prime paradigm. In fact, it reminds me very much of another favorite – The Verdict – and the two films in fact share the same plot: down-on-his-luck lawyer takes an impossible case, only to prove himself with perseverance and gumption (and both also share a specific element – an eleventh-hour, surprise witness, who turns it all around). And both contain hat all-important lynchpin: the hero you desperately want to succeed. Both films accomplish this with crystal-clear miscarriages of justice, and through protagonists you are fully invested in.
The other hero of Vinny must be the screenwriter, Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Blind Date). He not only craft a narrative rich with laughs but he makes damned sure it’s all legally sound (another parallel with The Verdict). There wasn’t a moment in the film that I didn’t believe, and, despite the generally broad tone of the comedy, it all seems quite possible in the quirky courtroom of the South, where even the legal eagles must at least somewhat loony. Perhaps my favorite supporting character here is the judge, played by Fred Gwynne. As Vinny’s other nemesis, he rides a fantastic balance between officious courtroom procedure and a delicately unspoken admiration for Vinny’s moxie. I really loved this guy, and it’s just sublime that it was Gwynne’s final role, as underrated a character actor as there ever was.
Yet it was another supporter, Mariso Tomei, who gleaned the most praise, and it’s hard to naysay it. It’s no wonder they saw a rising star in her based on this – she essentially took a New York caricature and filled it with a mix of insecurity, impatience, and an overriding devotion to her man. I was always watching her in the margins, from her clearly improvised foot-thumping during the “biological-clock” scene, to her witness stand testimony – essentially a rambling of car facts with a “take that!” ‘tude, the Oscar-bait scene. And she sure is sexy as all hell; what male in the audience wasn’t secretly wishing they had a woman like that, gutsy yet gushy, taking no s**t from anyone yet unflinching in her support for her man.
Vinny was a modest BO hit, but has since enjoy cult favorite status (Tomei’s Oscar, and the urban legend surrounding it, doubtless helped). And I’ve always liked it too – one of those word-of-mouth goodies that can actually stand repeated viewings.
And a good start if you want to explore Pesci’s post-Goodfellas canon. Try The Super next.