I haven't seen many of the "Great Courtroom Dramas" of all time, but I've seen enough to know that they can be really interesting, moving, and even significant in the way they represent society as enacted by a jury. My Cousin Vinny does all of these things while still being a comedy, and that's no easy feat. It's a comedy with endearing characters, hilarious dialogue, great performances, and a story that gets more interesting the further along the film goes. It's also one that I'd never seen until about a week ago, and Lord forgive me, for I have sinned.
We are first introduced to the accused; two young guys named Billy (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) who are accused of murder after a misunderstanding at an Alabama convenience store. They're gonna need a lawyer; a cheap one. Luckily Billy has a lawyer cousin they can get to represent them: the titular Vinny (Joe Pesci). Vinny and his girlfriend Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei) stick out like sore thumbs in the rural town of Beechum County, with their thick Brooklyn accents and harsh sense of style. At first, things appear grim for Billy and Stan as Vinny continually botches up each hearing and the case now must go to trail. Vinny hasn't had any trial experience in the six years since he graduated college, but his natural tendencies to argue intelligently until he gets what he wants might be enough to save Billy and Stan from the death penalty.
The premise for the film is good enough, but to see where writer Dale Launer takes the story becomes so involving, and the comedy is so sharp and on-point, that you're positively on the edge of your seat by the end. The film even makes legal procedure seem interesting, with Vinny's constant inability to be polite to the judge and respect the dress code getting plenty of milage because of Pesci's performance. You get the sense that Vinny is never bewildered by the law process, just annoyed by it; he may not understand all the rules, but he's gonna figure this thing out one way or another.
Marisa Tomei famously won an Oscar for her performance, and while she owes a lot of her character's brilliance to the writing (like most Best Actor Oscar winners), she really does a great job of flawlessly embodying the smart girl who just sounds stupid. Tomei and Pesci have really great chemistry that makes their arguments a joy to listen to, seeing as how they never get into "real" fights, just hilarious bickering that subtly develops them as characters. When you see Mona Lisa handle herself in an argument about a leaky faucet, she makes up an entire scenario with intricate details in order to get a one-up on Vinny when he asks her if she's sure she turned it off. While she does this as a joke, it helps establish that she's an even better arguer than Vinny, so her involvement later on in court comes as no surprise. Also, I have to mention former Munster star Fred Gwynne as the judge, who might be the one holding the gavel, but is always one step behind the other characters. He never goes full-on villain, which definitely works in the movie's favor, but he's always there as an adversary to keep tensions high.
Something else I love about the movie is how it exposes the falsities of eyewitness accounts. People misinterpret information, claim they see things when they couldn't have, and don't often think about variables when they "know what they saw." But Vinny interviews each of them and finds the holes in their reports, and as each one is revealed you get a sense of victory. You just wanna pull a Macaulay Culkin and yell "YES!" every time, and not because Joe Pesci is lighting his head on fire.
My Cousin Vinny has remained pretty endearing in the years since its 1992 release, and it's easy to see why. It has a charm to it that's impossible to fake; the characters are all lovable and well developed, and the court case gets more interesting the further into the movie you go. There's no room for sentiment though; this is a hard-R comedy, probably exclusively because of its f-bomb count, but that only adds some believability to the two Brooklynites. Having someone from Brooklyn not swearing in every other sentence would be like watching a Mel Brooks movie with no penis jokes; it just wouldn't seem right. The cherry on top is the chemistry betwen Pesci and Tomei, giving the movie its heart and grounding its humor simultaneously. I'm not sure I've seen another courtroom comedy quite as satisfying as this, but when the bar is set this high, I guess that's understandable.