Tuesday 31 December 2019

Movie Review: My Cousin Vinny (1992)

A courtroom comedy, My Cousin Vinny finds good laughs in the story of a scrappy Brooklyn lawyer rising up to the challenge of defending his wrongly accused cousin in the deep south.

While on a road trip through Alabama, friends Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and arrested as prime suspects in the murder of a convenience store clerk. Bill recruits his Brooklyn-based cousin and fledgling lawyer Vinny (Joe Pesci) as his defence lawyer. He arrives in town with long-suffering fiancee Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), and admits to have never been involved in a murder case nor even appeared in court.

Nevertheless Vinny convinces Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) of his qualifications by bending several truths. Up against prosecutor Jim Trotter (Lane Smith), Vinny appears out of his depth and is repeatedly jailed for contempt, with Mona Lisa bailing him out every time. With several witnesses claiming to have seen Bill and Stan flee the murder scene, proving their innocence will be Vinny's challenge of a lifetime.

The initial plot construct required to land Bill and Stan in a heap of trouble is contrived in the extreme. But once the script by writer and co-producer Dale Launer gets past the required set-up and director Jonathan Lynn unleashes the duo of Vinny and Mona Lisa on the small fictional town of Wazoo, Alabama, the fun starts in earnest.

Bill and Stan are essentially sidelined for the entire second half, Vinny and Mona Lisa take over, and the strength of the movie resides in the partnership between the long-engaged bickering couple. He is the fast-thinking ambulance chasing injury lawyer about to pretend he knows something about murder cases. She is sarcastic, bored and under-appreciated, and a sight to behold in a succession of over-the-top outfits and hairdos. Together they banter in broad Brooklyn accents, with an undercurrent of love and mutual appreciation holding them together - barely.

To build up tension for the climactic court battle Launer colours in plenty of local character. Vinny and Mona Lisa tangle with the locals, but more memorably cannot find a place to sleep that is not interrupted by one calamity or another before the crack of each dawn.

Once the action moves to the courtroom My Cousin Vinny soars in both drama and comedy. While maintaining a light touch and accessible arguments, the film is lauded (and used as an educational tool and reference point) for accurately representing the tactics and nimble thinking required to engage on evidence and expert witnesses.

And to Launer's immense credit the story contains no evil antagonists. Judge Haller, prosecutor Trotter and sheriff Farley (Bruce McGill) are all simply doing their jobs. Vinny is the disruptive fish out of water, and he is just trying to do his best.

With the case balanced on a knife's edge Mona Lisa finally gets her moment to shine, and Marisa Tomei delivers triumphantly unexpected testimony from the witness stand, grabbing the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in the process. My Cousin Vinny claims the title credit, but it's the woman in his life who deservedly steals the spotlight.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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