“I’ve just never actually seen a grit”
I watched My Cousin Vinny a lot in my youth thanks in part to it being a cable TV staple. It’s been a while since my last visit with Joe Pesci‘s titular character’s antics, but the appeal of its humor never faded. I’ve continued to quote lines like “two youts” and others despite my memory for that type of practice being far less conducive than most and therefore merely assumed through years of detachment that my enjoyment was purely on a comedic level. The simplicity of its fish-out-of-water juxtaposition with fast-talking Vinny and Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei‘s deserved Oscar-winning role) opposite reserved traditionalists like Judge Haller (Fred Gwynne) wasn’t something to easily forget. Neither was its underdog trajectory of heroes fighting against themselves. What I neglected to remember was just how good a movie it really is.
I’m not talking in terms of its three-act structure or ability to complementarily traverse its lighter and darker landscapes either—Dale Launer‘s script is at its core an enjoyably believable courtroom drama. Unsurprisingly, a cursory bit of research shows many in the judicial system agree about the veracity of what Launer and director Jonathan Lynn portray too. From the dynamic of an inexperienced lawyer wetting his feet with a murder case (the main defendant is his cousin Bill played by Ralph Macchio) clashing against a small town blindly assuming looks mean everything to the detailed evolution of a trial from arraignment through verdict, My Cousin Vinny proves airtight in its construction. Cross-examination is highlighted as well as the importance of an argumentative persona willing to do whatever’s necessary to swing a jury towards differentiating circumstantial evidence from truth.
What I found most invigorating this time around was how successful it is despite lacking any real “bad guy”. Haller instills fear due to his position of power while prosecutor Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith) and Sheriff Farley (Bruce McGill) both prove antagonistic, but they’re all acting in accordance to their occupations. Haller has a courtroom to control and instill with decorum and respect. Trotter and Farley have what appears to be an open and shut case they must tirelessly work to seek justice. It’s not like any of them are maliciously going after Bill and his buddy Stan (Mitchell Whitfield)—they merely see two city slickers who were admittedly at the crime scene and who do resemble the assailants three eye witnesses saw leave after hearing gunshots. The case is built and due process is followed.
So rather than concerning itself with finding the real killers or duping the audience into thinking these two might be them, Launer goes at the story from the angle of guilty until proven innocent because that’s how these boys are portrayed to the public. A farcical mix-up assists this mindset considering Bill did commit a crime by accidentally stealing a can of tuna. His confession, albeit unaware of the accusation leveled his way, does cause understandable confusion. And just because the coincidental nature of needing two similar cars driven by two similar pairs of men for the whole thing to work requires suspension of disbelief, that isn’t Vinny’s problem. His job is to introduce doubt in the witnesses’ testimony (Maury Chaykin, Paulene Myers, and Raynor Scheine) while also discovering evidence to confirm a second car was plausible.
Whereas most films go overly dramatic with a law team combing through details and lawyers risking their own lives uncovering conspiracies, the comedic element here delivers its own spin. Vinny’s on an island trying to ward off the judge with lies and schmooze the prosecutor for insight (before realizing the concept of “disclosure”), so his journey is abbreviated in its orthodoxy. We see glimpses with witnesses to set up his future arguments, enough to foreshadow without having to listen to everything twice. This allows more time for his and Mona Lisa’s relationship struggles, the broad humor of Alabama mornings possessing natural alarm clocks, and some physical jokes involving mud and fashion. And somehow these seemingly inane moments prove crucial to the main plot. A line cook explaining how to fry grits at the start isn’t a throwaway line.
This is a credit to Launer and the natural way his humor enhances his machinations. The laughs have purpose beyond pleasure and as a result the characters project a three-dimensional depth you wouldn’t assume possible on first blush. You don’t win Oscars for flimsy roles in shallow comedies, though. Tomei’s Mona Lisa isn’t comic relief or a sidekick to Pesci’s Vinny; she’s a legitimate force propelling the story forward as much or more. She’s the voice of reason and kick in the pants her fiancé needs to embrace the fear of this not being a nickel and dime personal injury case. If he loses two young men about to embark on the next stage of their lives through college are dead. There are actual stakes Launer’s comedy never demeans because the film never puts genre above subject matter.
And don’t think Tomei reading Alabama’s law codes convenient to save the day. She wants to help from the start and her doing this after acknowledging Vinny’s frustrations is love, pure and simple. Mona Lisa can’t sit on the sidelines and watch everything implode so she’ll find a way to get involved if he won’t. As far as her growing up amongst a long lineage of mechanics being convenient to where the film eventually goes? It’s irrelevant. Revelations and actions may come at a fast pace because there’s only two hours to fit everything in, but they’re never loose. Had these characters not been so complex and the performances not so effective I’d probably scream foul myself. But because I believe in them, any notion of coincidence fades away. They use their strengths and that’s all anyone of us can hope to do.