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My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"A Comedy Of Trial And Error"

This film celebrates individuality. It does so with a style that provides hilarity in a way all its own. Although all the actors do very good jobs, there are two that stand out from the rest: Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. Pesci, who leads the cast in the title role, received an American Comedy Award for his performance. However, Marisa Tomei gives a breakthrough performance for which she received the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Actresses in screwball comedies seldom get nominated, much less receive such awards, but her performance deserved it.

The film opens with two young male New Yorkers traveling through scenic Alabama on the way to their west coast college destination. Crossing the border into Beechum County they stop at the Sac O' Suds to get supplies for their journey. In selecting food the two have some disagreement. The driver, Billy Gambini (Ralph Macchio), favors purchasing some tuna. Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) – bored with tuna – prefers other options. Bill decides to get one can of tuna for himself, but with his hands already full he sticks the can in his pocket and heads to the checkout. They pay for their purchases and get back on the road, when Bill discovers that he forgot the can of tuna in his pocket. While Bill and Stan discuss consequences of not paying for the tuna, they notice a police car following them.

Stan has some preconceptions about life in the south which begin to emerge as they discuss why the cop might be following them. Bill tries to calm Stan, but when the police car lights up they pull over. The cop pulls a shotgun, takes position behind his car door and orders the two to put their hands up and get out of the car. Later – partly because of Stan's expectations of “Southern justice” – they continue to believe their predicament the result of not paying for a can of tuna. However, back at the Sac O' Suds, Sheriff Dean Farley (Bruce McGill) stands over the dead body of the clerk while his people gather forensic material from the crime scene.

The Sheriff returns to his office to interrogate Bill and Stan. Because of differing expectations – Bill: theft of a can of tuna, the Sheriff: murder – they talk past one another, each putting different meaning on the words exchanged. Stan and the Sheriff have a similar conversation. Eventually, Bill figures out that he stands accused of murder, not stealing a can of tuna. Stan's prejudice against Southerners (mistaken preconceptions about the South) again shows when Bill makes his phone call to his mother. She tells him his cousin Vinny practices law and will head south to help.

A large older model Cadillac turns a corner on its way to the site of the upcoming trial. Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancée: Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), obviously not from the neighborhood, step from the car and conspicuously “stick out like a sore thumb” in the small town square. Meanwhile, with the local jail condemned, the authorities take Bill and Stan to the state prison for housing.

As with “southern justice” Stan also has strong expectations about the prison. These color his actions when Vinny comes to interview his two clients. For humor, little in movies can top the first conversation between Vinny and Stan in the prison cell, when Stan mistakes Vinny's identity. After Vinny wakes Bill, those misunderstandings clear, but Stan doesn't have a great deal of confidence in Vinny. Of course, Vinny has little actual experience in practicing law and took six tries to pass the Bar exam.

After meeting the boys, Vinny's next step involves getting Judge Chamberlain Haller's (Fred Gwynne in his last screen role) approval of him as an out of state attorney. Judge Haller – a Yale graduate – inquires where Vinny went to law school. The Brooklyn Academy of Law has a smaller reputation than Yale. In their first meeting Vinny and the Judge may start off on the wrong foot. The next morning after Vinny and Lisa soak up some local color at a diner for breakfast, they head to the courthouse for the arraignment. There Vinny meets the opposing attorney D.A. Jim Trotter, III (Lane Smith) and receives a contempt of court charge from the judge. That introduces the major characters and their situation. I hope that much and what follows tantalize you enough  to watch the film.

This movie examines the clash of cultures and people's differing expectations. It contains a tremendous amount of humor and insight. The film does not take sides in these culture clashes. Instead it shows all the sides as essentially reasonable. The cast all excel in their performances, but Marisa Tomei as Lisa tops them all. If you are looking for a great movie, that shows both the humor and trouble in what people's preconceptions can generate, My Cousin Vinny both satisfies and also ranks as one of my favorite comedies. I expect you will like it too.

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