Title: My Cousin Vinny
Release Date: March 13, 1992
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Production Company: Palo Vista Productions | Peter V. Miller Investment Corp.
My Cousin Vinny was one of those movies that looked kind of dumb but when I actually saw way back when at some communal gathering, I was surprised at how good it was. It helps that, just like me, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) went to the South and discovered he really liked grits. Nevertheless, I always have an uneasy feeling about beloved comedies from my youth will cause me to cringe if I watch them today. Early in the movie, Vinny is misunderstood by Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) in the jail in what turns out to be a prison rape joke and that got my cringe feelers raised. But fortunately, other than that, this movie holds up very well and remains an excellent comedy.
The story begins with college students Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan driving through the South. They are pulled over by the police in Alabama and charged with murdering the clerk at a convenience store they had shopped at earlier in the day. Needing a lawyer, Bill calls upon “my cousin Vinny,” who turns out to be an inexperienced personal injury lawyer with no trial experience. Nevertheless, Vinny arrives in Alabama with his fiancée Lisa (a brilliant Marisa Tomei). It’s a fish-out-of-water story and one that relies on stereotypes both of Italian-Americans from Brooklyn and of people from the Deep South. But the movie never pushes too far on the stereotypes and works to show everyone’s humanity.
The court scenes are particularly well done, feeling more like a real court than your typical courtroom drama. A lot of the humor is the conflict between Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) who runs his court by the book and the unconventional behavior of Vinny. Vinny’s newfound knowledge of grits and Lisa’s lifetime knowledge of cars also play an important role in the trial. The movie takes a surprising, albeit subtle, stance against the death penalty.
It turns out that I may like My Cousin Vinny even more now than when I watched in the 1990s.