What a quirky film. My Cousin Vinny feels like the type of film that would never get made today, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a New York lawyer (Joe Pesci) (who has never tried a case) forced to defend his nephew in a murder trial in small-town Alabama. If that doesn’t sound like enough of an oddball premise, then throw in an incredibly Italian fiance (Marisa Tomei), from a family of car mechanics, who tags along for the trip.
For one thing, My Cousin Vinny mines its comedy heavily from stereotypes that I think Hollywood films tend to try to avoid nowadays. Pesci and Tomei are certainly quite good here at playing up the Italian of it all, but it veers into schtick in uncomfortable ways at times.
For that matter, Pesci and Tomei are incredibly well-cast. Pesci is known for his hyper-volatile roles in gangster films like Goodfellas, but here, he can tone things down about 15% and instead play the Italian tough-guy a little more humorously. Similarly, Tomei sells the hell out of her character, who is over-the-top and cartoonish. The complaints about her Oscar win are probably justified – this isn’t really the type of performance, or film, that generally (ever?) wins an Oscar – but it’s not a bad performance at all.
If this were made today, it’s almost certain that Pesci’s performance would have to be more muted than it is. Here, he verges on abusive and just plain mean – it’s hard to see why Tomei would want to be with this guy.
Overall, this film is pretty clever – there’s some nice circularity tying events from early into the film into the court case and Vinny’s defense. The film is definitely at it’s best, at its most energetic, when Vinny finally figures out how to really be a lawyer. There’s something incredibly cinematic about lawyers interrogating witnesses on the stand in legal dramas – The Good Wife, Law and Order, Boston Legal, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and so on (I could go for ages) are all proof of that. Still, there’s something to be said for a film or television show that stretches up against the legal drama format. A more recent example of this can be found in NBC’s Trial and Error, a film with the similar premise of a novice New York attorney sent to small-town America to defend someone on murder charges.
I probably won’t ever revisit this film – it’s kind of a nothing film as far as any sort of impact or emotional resonance. Still, there’s worse ways to spend a couple hours than with Pesci and Tomei playing up their Italian heritage.