My Cousin Vinny Turns 30 (and I try not to freak out).
I don’t know what it is these days – maybe the existential dread of going into year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the horrendous situation in Ukraine – but my boyfriend and I have been intentionally seeking out TV shows and movies that are about good people who are kind to each other where no one shouts, manipulates, betrays, or murders anyone. Preferably with a happy ending. Admittedly this leaves out a lot of prestige TV and a lot of really great movies, but man, are we wrung out right now. We binged our way through Ted Lasso and All Creatures Great and Small and our hearts grew ten sizes as a result, and we have since been desperately seeking more media in this same vein. CODA, one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, was a breath of fresh air. The Lost Daughter, on the other hand, left us depressed and almost angry, despite the critical acclaim and our general love for all things Olivia Coleman.
We welcomed Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, as his storytelling skills and ethnically-accurate casting, along with Tony Kushner’s screenplay, canceled out nearly every cringey element of the original, but again - lots of murder, lots of idiot plot (it is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s famous play ostensibly about star-crossed lovers that is actually about how fucking dumb teenagers are when they fall in lust #sorrynotsorry), it’s depressing and frustrating. We noped out on Succession even though basically everyone is telling us to watch it. We did enjoy Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, but come on – it’s Shakespeare (but about ambitious and paranoid royalty and the fate of Scotland, not two dumb hormonal kids!), and we are former theater majors (albeit very briefly on both our parts). We knew going into it that there’s a lot of murder and betrayal. Plus, Denzel. Plus, Frances. Plus, the beauty of the language. It’s Shakespeare! Shakespeare about grown-ups! Come on!
All that being said, when I decided to write about the 30th anniversary of My Cousin Vinny, I was a little apprehensive, first of all, as many regular readers might know because when I write these anniversary pieces, I tend to get really bogged down in my own neuroses about aging. And second of all, I hadn’t seen the film in a long time, and all I remembered was a lot of yelling by Vinny (played by Joe Pesci) and his girlfriend Lisa (played by Marisa Tomei).
Also: a violent murder is a big part of the plotline.
Imagine my surprise when I rewatched this film and remembered how hysterically funny it is and realized how, in the end, My Cousin Vinny actually is exactly the type of movie that we have been craving in our house: good people who are kind to each other. Who love each other. Who do the right thing? People who come together in understanding. A happy ending.
When My Cousin Vinny was released in 1992, Joe Pesci had already proven his comedic chops after his appearance as Harry, one of the burglars in my all-time favorite Christmas movie, Home Alone – pretty impressive considering Home Alone was released the same year as Martin Scorsese’s extremely violent and extremely famous mob movie Goodfellas. Tommy DeVito, a legit psychopath (even by mafia standards) is perhaps the most quintessential Pesci role – the one he will likely always be the most strongly associated with. (Go to YouTube and search, “Do I amuse you?” – I guarantee you know this scene even if you haven’t seen Goodfellas.) I’ve always gotten the feeling that Pesci did Home Alone and My Cousin Vinny in an attempt to avoid being pigeonholed into mafia stories, though in both films he does tap into a stereotypical New Yawker Italian gangster-like sensibility. (Hard to escape for an actor of Italian descent who grew up in Jersey, I suppose...)
In brief: Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio, the OG Karate Kid) and Stan Rothstein (Mitchell Whitfield), two kids from New York, are road-tripping to Los Angeles where they have just won scholarships to study at UCLA. While driving through Alabama, they accidentally shoplift a can of tuna at a convenience store. After they leave, the store is robbed by two other young men and the store manager is killed. The police arrest Bill and Stan because they fit the description of the suspects, but the poor kids are so freaked out by their accidental shoplifting that their guilty behavior and confessions of shoplifting results in them being charged with murder, as the confession is misconstrued as a confession to the larger crime.
Enter the titular Cousin Vinny: Vincent Gambini, a personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn who has only just managed to pass the bar (after five previous failed attempts) and has no trial experience. But he agrees to take the case because Bill is family, and… well, wacky hijinks ensue.
I realize how flippant that sounds in the context of a trial against two young boys who have been falsely accused of murder; however, what follows is a really fun, classic fish-out-of-water story, where Vinny and Lisa (Tomei), who has accompanied him to Alabama, have to get used to the food, climate, and culture of the deep south within a small rural town whose citizens definitely do not trust New Yorkers (especially not New Yorkers who look like Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas, presumably). Somehow, they must keep his little cousin and his friend from getting the death penalty for a crime they did not commit.
Vinny, though extremely nervous to be a litigator, manages to convince the trial judge that he is experienced enough to represent Bill and Stan, though his ignorance of courtroom procedures, appropriate dress code, and abrasive New Yawker attitude consistently land him in contempt of court. Despite the lack of a murder weapon, the prosecutor appears to have a strong case, with the actual culprits long-fled from town, and Bill and Stan’s accidental confession essentially guarantees a guilty verdict. That being said, as the trial continues, Vinny starts to come into his own as an astute attorney, who learns quickly how best to cross-examine witnesses, integrates his growing knowledge of southern culture (for instance, how long it takes to cook grits) to poke holes in eyewitness testimony, and gradually earns the begrudging respect of the judge.
What I loved as I was rewatching the film was how even though a lot of the humor of the film comes from the fish-out-of-water aspects of Vinny’s experiences in court (for instance, it takes several back-and-forths for the judge to understand his New Yawk pronunciation of the word “youths,”) and in this small Alabama town (grits for breakfast, getting his car stuck in intractable mud, the oppressive heat, everyone being suspicious of his leather jacket), it does so in a gentle way. This isn’t a film that is just centered around mocking small-town southerners – Vinny and Lisa’s New Yawk-ness is also made fun of considerably. Nobody here is ultimately the butt of the joke – or perhaps everyone is, but with great affection.
The folks in the town come to care for and appreciate Vinny and Lisa by the end of the film, even if they don’t particularly understand them, and vice versa. And justice is ultimately served, via a triumphant turn on the witness stand by Lisa, who Vinny calls as an expert witness due to being born into a family of mechanics – her vast knowledge of cars ends up being the key to what exonerates Bill and Stan. (Tomei won an Academy Award for her performance in this film, which I recall at the time was quite controversial as broad comedies like this one rarely get such acknowledgment at the Oscars, but if you watch the entire courtroom sequence featuring Lisa’s testimony, the way she slowly realizes where Vinny’s line of questioning is going and begins to really get into the performance of her testifying, and the way she plays off of Pesci with such brassy and brash confidence, I defy you to object to her win. This is a beautiful and brilliantly charming performance, and her chemistry with Pesci is spellbinding.) Lisa’s testimony leads the police to open up another search for the real killers, who are quickly found in Georgia. The judge drops the charges, the boys are released and on their way to their UCLA scholarships, Vinny proves that he actually is a good attorney, and he and Lisa drive off back to Brooklyn… bickering about their wedding plans, but obviously very much in love.
I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this film, honestly – unless you want me to start expounding on how I was seven years old when this film was released, and now I’m 37, and clearly, mortality is freaking me out (you can get plenty of that from my earlier Story Screen anniversary pieces) – except that, in addition to Tomei as Lisa, it’s basically chock full of charming performances (shout-out to Fred Gwynne, most famously known as Herman Munster, as Judge Chamberlain Haller), it’s one of Pesci’s greatest film roles, and to be frank? If you’re like Tim and me right now, burned out from the non-stop despair around us, and just want some gentle fun, some big belly laughs, some good-hearted characters who want to do the right thing and succeed? It’s worth revisiting. Do it. We need more Vincent Gambinis in the world, especially now. Spend some time with him and you’ll feel better about life. At least for a while.
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.