My Cousin Vinny at 30: A Delightful Legal Culture Clash
Truth, Justice And The Gambini Way.
In 1992, about halfway between his legendary turns in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, Joe Pesci played his other iconic 1990s role: That of Vincent Gambini, the rookie Brooklyn attorney trying his falsely-accused cousin’s murder case in rural Alabama, in the comedy My Cousin Vinny.
Directed by Jonathan Lynn, My Cousin Vinny was part of the fish-out-of-water, culture-clash tradition, which was very popular in the 1980s and ’90s but less so today. The film, released 30 years ago this week, also brought Pesci, an actor known largely for tough-guy roles, into a comedy, with highly successful results. Even so, the film was all but stolen by Marisa Tomei, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.
My Cousin Vinny has been praised by lawyers as one of the more realistic movies about the justice system and the lawyer profession, and certainly one of the most successful ones at drawing humor from a courtroom setting. But much of the comedy in the script, written by Dale Launer, was drawn from a simple fact: Most of the country doesn’t have New York Italian-Americans or anything like them.
The film begins with a pair of buddies, Bill and Stan (Ralph Macchio and Michell Whitfield) — a Jew and an Italian from New York — who stop in a small Alabama town on a road trip. Through a comical series of misunderstandings, they’re accused of a shooting death of a convenience store owner and jailed. Why they’re in the out-of-the-way state of Alabama on a drive from New York to Los Angeles is never quite explained.
Panicked, Bill calls the only lawyer he knows: The titular cousin, who just took up the practice of law recently, despite being in his 40s; he had recently passed the bar on his sixth try, and had never before tried a case. Vinny arrives in town with his secretary/fiancee Mona Lisa Vito (Tomei), a brassy New Yawk broad with an expert knowledge of car mechanics that proves crucial to the outcome.
Vinny and Mona Lisa frequently clash with this Southern town, whose ways are just as stereotypical and exaggerated as theirs are; the town is depicted as deeply corrupt as it is hungry for executions. A running gag has the judge (Fred Gwynne) questioning Vinny’s credentials, as well as his wardrobe.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is filled with ace character actors like Lane Smith, Bruce McGill, Austin Pendleton, Maury Chaykin, and James Rebhorn.
My Cousin Vinny made $64 million, on an $11 million budget, and it won Tomei that Oscar, which was so controversial at the time that a conspiracy theory emerged that presenter Jack Palance had drunkenly read the wrong name (this was always false, and in 2016, we learned what actually happens when the wrong winner gets announced at the Oscars.)
Tomei’s win, though, was much deserved, and she was nominated two more times, for 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2008’s The Wrestler. More recently, she’d played the youngest, sexiest Aunt May of all time in the Tom Holland Spider-man movies.
Pesci was very busy in 1992, appearing in five films, including sequels to Home Alone and Lethal Weapon. He would return to comedy with 1997’s 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, before going into retirement at the end of the 1990s, although he’s returned on such special occasions as 2006’s The Good Shepherd and 2019’s The Irishman.
As for the director, Jonathan Lynn, he would return to legal comedy in 1997 with Trial and Error, with Michael Richards and Jeff Daniels, with less success, although his 2000 The Whole Nine Yards rivaled My Cousin Vinny for sheer hilarity.
It’s hard to remember the last really good courtroom comedy, and My Cousin Vinny found success in that subgenre, thanks to those lead performances and that dynamite premise.