My Cousin Vinny is not the greatest movie Joe Pesci ever made, but it is unquestionably the Joe Pesci-est movie Joe Pesci ever made. One of five 1992 films featuring the diminutive actor (along with Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2), My Cousin Vinny stars Pesci as Vincent LaGuardia Gambini—clearly a name designed to evoke the best and worst of New Yawk Italian-Americans—a wannabe lawyer whose first case sends him into the murky waters of Broad Alabama Clichés to defend his young cousin, played by Ralph Macchio, when he is wrongfully accused of murder, much like Hilary Swank’s brother in this week’s Conviction. Along for the ride is Maria Tomei, in the performance that would win her an unfairly controversial Oscar, and a cast of brilliant supporting actors trying on terrible Southern accents. In the battle of stereotype-versus-stereotype, who will prevail?
DF: Am I the only one who thinks that, whenever Joe Pesci throws a tantrum in the movie, he’s this close to shooting Marisa Tomei in the face?
KS: It’s because of Goodfellas. We’re automatically conditioned to think that whenever Joe Pesci starts asking rhetorical questions, someone’s getting hurt. “What am I, a lawyer to you? Am I going to be litigating?” BAM! The essence of Joe Pesci is that when his fury and passive-aggression is released via violence, it’s horrifying. But when it’s just turned into frustration and exasperation, it’s hilarious.
DF: In 1992, Pesci was having a Jeff Goldblum moment: The strange man was suddenly adored by everyone in America. Vinny is a film built entirely around the Joe Pesci star persona as surely as Mission: Impossible is built around Tom Cruise. I think that’s why I like My Cousin Vinny so much — it recasts the Joe Pesci nutcase as the lovable romantic hero.
KS: I think what also helps make My Cousin Vinny work is that Joe Pesci’s stereotype is nicely counter-balanced by about 40 other stereotypes. “Oh, those simple country folk, with their one suit store, their wood cabins, and their death by electric chair. What charm!” Usually in a movie like this, city mouse and country mouse learn something about each other and realize that each have their strengths. But here, they basically tolerate each other for awhile and then go their separate ways, without learning that there was in fact anything beyond their initial impressions.
DF: It does seem like there’s a slightly less genteel ending where everyone congratulates Pesci and the judge walks up and says, “You’re a hell of a trial lawyer,” but then also says, “Guess what! According to New York, you’re not a lawyer at all” and throws him in prison. At least that’s a bit more structurally sound than: “Remember that judge you mentioned that one time? I called him for help, and he helped! DEUS EX MACHINA!”
KS: They could have just had the judge say, “Oh, you weren’t who you said you were, but that was one great cross-examination,” mutual respect, shake hands, Joe Pesci says something untoward and gets a glare from the judge to prove that they’re still cut from different cloths, and then drive off into the sunset. Instead it’s, “Nope, we’re still lying, let’s just get out of here before these rubes arrest us.”
DF: It used to be a joke that Marisa Tomei won the Oscar. Now, her victory is the rare evidence that the Oscars don’t always get things utterly wrong. It’s actually someone who won a supporting actor trophy for a legitimately supporting performance, for a purely comic performance, and before she was even remotely famous.
KS: There was that silly rumor that Jack Palance accidentally read the wrong name when he presented the award. As if Jack Palance actually deserved his Oscar more than she did! But in years since, Tomei’s racked up two more nominations, for serious roles. So in the words of Mona Lisa Vito, “F— you, you freakin’ dumbasses!”
DF: So this movie was the beginning of Marisa Tomei’s career, the midpoint of Joe Pesci’s career…and the end of Ralph Macchio’s career?
KS: Pretty much. In Vinny, Macchio plays a twenty-something college student who looks about 14, even though he was actually 31 when the film came out. I’d heard that Macchio was considered at one point for the role of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, and now that makes sense since he can clearly control time. Either that or he made a deal with the devil to receive eternal youth but forgot to ask for eternal fame as well.
DF: Him and his wrongfully-accused friend are the main characters of the film for the first 20 minutes, and then they spend the rest of the movie doing spit takes whenever Joe Pesci does or says something stupid/brilliant.
KS: The real surprise of Vinny is that it is genuinely hilarious. I think going in you know that it’s Pesci doing meta-Pesci and Marisa Tomei snapping gum, and you look at the title and you think it’ll be an amusing concept comedy and that’s about it. But there are a ton of laughs, from Fred Gwynne drawling “Huwhat is a yute?” to the 20-minute long misunderstanding in which the friend thinks Joe Pesci’s going to rape him. And somehow within that is a really solid courtroom story that blows an episode of Law & Order out of the water.
DF: There’s the outward core of Brooklyn Stereotype meets Southern Stereotype. There’s lots of comical “who’s on first?” wordplay based on simple misunderstandings. And then there’s the final courtroom sequence, which allows Pesci to relentlessly chew the scenery.
KS: Let me just point out that on the IMDb entry for My Cousin Vinny, their recommendations if you liked the film include A Time to Kill, Call Northside 777, Freeway, Anatomy of a Murder, and Capote. I’m not sure they’ve quite got it nailed.
DF: Come on, what do you mean? Truman Capote and Joe Pesci both have hilarious voices.
Next Week: Paranormal Activity 2 is a haunted house movie in which a mysterious force messes with a couple’s child. Next week, we’ll be asking Carol Anne to stay away from the light in Poltergeist, the best film Steven Spielberg swears he didn’t direct.