My Cousin Vinny – #2 Film in the US
All-Time Domestic $52,929,168 | International $11,159,384
All-Time Worldwide $64,088,552
My Cousin Vinny is a simple, hilarious look at the trial system carried by Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei’s charismatic performances.
At this point in 1992, Wayne’s World was still number one at the box office after five weeks. Comedies get a lot of staying power due to word of mouth or people going back for repeat viewings. The average ticket price in 1992 is only $4.15 ($7.35 in today’s money) also helps. Yet, Wayne’s World did have some competition from a man known for being tough on-screen and filled with machismo. I’m of course talking about Edward James Olmos with his directorial debut American Me. I’ve seen it before and it’s a typical prison gangster film that’s a Mexican classic. Every uncle I know owns a DVD of it.
This week, we are going to take it easy. We’re with the movie that gave me the inspiration to do this blog series: My Cousin Vinny. Before starting the series, I had not seen My Cousin Vinny before and noticed it was from 1992. Then, I looked at a list of other movies from 1992 and went “I should do a whole series on films from ‘92. Yet, one was released 30 years ago from that week.” Next thing you know, you’re reading this.
This film was during the peak of beloved “Wise Guy” Joe Pesci’s career in the 90s. Pesci was hot off the heels of his Oscar win from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. He was also earning dough from the box office success of Home Alone. He also had a role in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Not to say Pesci was a slouch in the 80s after Raging Bull, but he was all in the 90s. In 1992 alone, he had four movies, three of which are being covered in this series. Of those three, this is the only one where he is the lead. Yet, someone else shines brighter alongside him with some Oscar gold to come in tow.
Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and his pal Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are driving through the country and stumble into Alabama. Unfortunately, their college road trip is cut short as they are charged with the first-degree murder of a store owner. Bill and Stan get help from Bill’s cousin, Vinny LaGuardia Gambini (Pesci). Vinny arrives at the podunk Alabama town with his fiancee Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei) to help the two “youts” win their case. The only problem is Vinny has no trial experience with knowledge in personal injury law. Vinny must prove himself as a capable defense lawyer in his first trial much to the chagrin of tough Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne). Vinny must use his New York “street smarts” to help beat the Southern justice system.
My Cousin Vinny turns the tired courtroom films on its head in a down-to-Earth fish-out-of-water comedy. Courtroom films are a dime a dozen, lending themselves to drama. Vinny makes a wonderful comedy out of it thanks to director Johnathan Lynn and writer Dale Launer. Lynn has a legit legal background with a law degree from Cambridge University in the UK. The duo captured the essence of how trials work by being as accurate to the process as possible while also getting great laughs out of it. The most fascinating fact to come from this I read is that many lawyers for the said portrayal of the legal process. It even blows the many courtroom dramas out of the water with its accuracy. It’s been used to show the basics of trials about how to cross-examine and use evidence. It’s damn smart in that respect, but even smarter in the decision to use comedy to show the process with the errors of being human. Lawyer Maxwell S. Kennerly of Kennerly Loutey Law Firm said it best in a personal blog post.
For many of those watching who aren’t lawyers, we can relate to the struggles of Vinny getting through the case. It takes the high falutin or often stoic characterization we’ve come to expect from lawyers and makes it relatable to the average person.
Pesci’s performance as Vinny also lends to this by making Vinny’s street smart present and own to get his points across. He may be a stereotype on the surface, but he is more than what we see. The film makes a point to not only let us know he passed the bar exam but to show he knows what he is talking about. He studies till a bevy of law books, he knows how to cross-examine and he understands how to use evidence by questioning someone with expertise. Vinny also takes no shit and does not go down without a fight. He also never goes over-the-top like Jim Carrey later on in the 90s with Liar Liar.
My favorite Vinny moment is the opening statements scene. His rival gives a big opening statement that could be in a standard legal drama. It’s complete with dramatic camera panning shots, a tense score with thunder coming in from the distance. It goes quiet as he wraps up his statements and then cuts to Vinny sleeping. As he wakes, Vinny goes to the jury and simply says “Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you.” I laughed out loud and had the stupidest grin on my face after. It’s so simple and hilarious. It even harkens back to his Oscar speech in how brief of a statement it is.
Gwynne as Judge Haller is terrific. I adore Fred Gwynne so much that when he appeared in the credits, I got excited as hell. I grew up seeing The Munsters re-runs alongside The Addams Family with my sister and grew to love Herman Munster as a character. Gwynne was a terrific actor and had tried for years to not be as known as Herman. Most will remember him as Jud in Pet Semetary delivering the memorable line of “Sometimes, dead is better.” He is a hard-ass in the film and a perfect antagonist.
Yet, he never comes off as a cruel cartoon villain, but someone who cares about the justice system and the process. His Southern twang shows that Haller is a local boy and has been. I love when he and Vinny discuss what a “yout” is (it’s youth) and how Vinny enunciates words. To find out this was his final film role was a shock because he was getting some recognition outside of his Munster character. Gwynne would die of pancreatic cancer in 1993 leaving an iconic final role and a legacy in television. Gwynne was one in a million.
As for Tomei as Mona Lisa, she earned the Best Supporting Actress Oscar fair and square. Tomei is amazing in every damn scene. Whoever watches this movie will fall in love the instant she’s on-screen. She is the heart of this movie being a ray of sunshine. She cares for Vinny and is upset with him not being able to focus. She wants to let him know she’s ready to have kids (i.e. “MY BIOLOGICAL CLOCK IS TICKING!”). Her fashion is also on point even making a gaudy floral jumpsuit look stunning.
Her character’s knowledge working with the mechanic comes in full display when she is selected as an expert witness. That scene is what garnered her the win and well-deserved. She beat literal living legend Vanessa Redgrave for the award. Film critic Rex Reed made up the rumor that actor Jack Palance misread the card. Now, that rumor died thanks to us seeing what happens when the card is read wrong when “Moonlight” won Best Picture in 2017.
Man, fuck Rex Reed.
Oh, Ralph Macchio is in this as well. He does not have much to do except interacting with Vinny now and then. He’s there to be there, which is the only detriment I can give this film.
My Cousin Vinny is a phenomenal comedy that is lifted with dynamic performances from Pesci, Gwynne, and Tomei. It gives another perspective on courtroom films from being a cliche drama to an uproarious comedy. It’s a surefire winner that has lasted 30 years for good reason.
Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Next week, do y’all remember when erotic thrillers were a thing? Director Paul Verhoeven is about to remind you with Basic Instinct. Yes, we will be discussing THAT scene.
P.S. You didn’t think I forget about the album where he reprised the role of Vinny, right?