1992 feels like a long time ago; can you imagine a genial character comedy about a street-savvy lawyer wowing the world in 2022? Probably not, and yet back in the 1990’s, sleeper hits like Jonathan Lynn’s comedy, based on Dale Launer’s script could generate significant coin. My Cousin Vinny may not push the envelope cinematically, but made an impression on pop-culture; as the world sniggers nervously at the disgrace of Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, the spectre of Vinny Gambrini is never far from the thoughts of commentators.
Launer’s script starts simply enough; two lads (Ralph Macciho and Mitchell Whitfield) stop at a convenience store in Alabama, and absent-mindedly shoplift a tin of tuna. Minutes later, the bodega is robbed, the owner killed, and the boys are wrongfully arrested; how to prove their innocence in court? Step forward cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci), a lawyer of dubious pedigree, who agrees to take the case, knowing that there’s a potential death sentence for the boys if he fails. But while there’s a matter of life and death involved, My Cousin Vinny is a light comedy, and the interplay of Vinny and mechanic’s daughter Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) provides a solid centre, and she got an Oscar for her work here.
For once, My Cousin Vinny is a film about legal matters that serves as an education; we learn, with the argumentative Vinny, what the rules of the trial will be, and they’re presented in detail. Even better, the conflict of Brooklyn New Yorkers vs Southern establishment figures is presented in an even handed way; the judge, prosecution and other court figures are professional, open-minded characters who eventually recognise the error of the prosecution. Equally, the joke is on Vinny and Mona Lisa as they misjudge various aspects of Southern hospitality; there’s a simple but effective joke about what annoying event wakes up Vinny in the morning, unwisely residing in accommodation booked without much local knowledge or consideration.
Indeed, Vinny’s whole ruse depends on the trial judge (Fred Gwynne) not being wise to his lack of experience; the prospect of a mistrial hovers over the final revelations in the court. It takes days for the authorities to check Vinny’s credentials, which would be authenticated (or not) in seconds in the internet age. My Cousin Vinny may not have spawned sequels, remakes or even a tv show, but it’s still a minor gem of a movie, without pretention, but smart and clever in the way the narrative brings all sides together in the on-going search for elusive, precious justice.