Few actors can skip from the high road to the low road as blithely as Joe Pesci. In Raging Bull and GoodFellas, he’s a consummate character actor, his beady eyes and rat-a-tat-tat verbal rhythms interlocking with director Martin Scorsese’s psychodramatic obsessiveness. In Lethal Weapon 2, Home Alone, and The Super, he’s the hyperkinetic fourth Stooge — call him Surly.

Now, in the lumbering, amiably stupido fish-out-of-water comedy My Cousin Vinny, the two sides of Pesci come together. The plot is pure no-brain bunk: Vinny (Pesci), a black-leather-clad East Coast Italian street tough whose pompadour gives him the look of a sawed-off Elvis impersonator, shows up in Wahzoo City, Ala., to defend his collegiate cousin (Ralph Macchio) on a bogus murder charge. For lengthy stretches, this overgrown-delinquent-in-hicksville farce makes you long for the wit and sophistication of, say, Doc Hollywood. But then Vinny, a failed law-school grad, gets his chance in court, and the movie hits moments of crude lunacy.

Whether he’s teeing off the sternly by-the-book Southern judge (Fred Gwynne), excusing a witness (”I got no more use for this guy!”), or making his case with the obstinacy of a street-corner logician, Vinny drags everything down to his testy, runt’s-eye view. The entire courtroom episode plays like a sitcom extension of the great ”Do you think I’m funny?” scene in GoodFellas. As Vinny’s New Yawk-sexpot fiancée, the award-winning stage actress Marisa Tomei has the mischievous sparkle of a born star. My Cousin Vinny is the definition of obvious, and it’s way too long (do films like this really need an hour’s worth of setup?). But Pesci and Tomei make a first-rate team — they’re Punch and Judy gone Brooklyn. C+

My Cousin Vinny
  • Movie
  • 120 minutes