What most people remember about this film is that it won Marisa Tomei a friggin Oscar! I have no clue what her competition was like that year, but she would have to go down as one of the most unlikely Oscar winning performances of all time. Don’t get me wrong, she is fine in the role as Joe Pesci’s car expert girlfriend, it is just that My Cousin Vinny isn’t normally the type of film you would associate with Oscar greatness. It is not much more than a forgettable comedy, yet it can now claim Oscar winning status.
Joe Pesci plays Vinny Gambini, a New York lawyer called upon by his cousin, The Karate Kid (Ralph Macchio), to help him and his friend out of a jam when they are accused of murder in a Podunk town in America’s South. Vinny’s flashy and abrupt New York attitude rub the townsfolk the wrong way, particularly the Judge (Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne, in what would be his last film role). Vinny quickly realises he must adapt to the small town way of doing things if he wants to help his wrongly accused cousin. Along for the ride is his loud girlfriend Mona (Tomei), who may end up being Vinny’s ace in the hole while proving Karate Kid’s innocence.
There is nothing really special about this film. It’s interesting to see Pesci playing his tough guy persona, but in a fish out of water setting. Pesci has made a career out of playing tough talking gangsters and his role here is somewhat similar. While he is now on the other side of the law, he is still an in your face personality that doesn’t take guff from anyone. His interactions with Fred Gwynne are probably the film’s highlight for me.
I already mentioned Tomei’s performance being an Oscar winning one, and perhaps the most extraordinary part about that is that she is now a two time Oscar winner. (She would end up winning again for The Wrestler.) I find her whole career to be amazing. Outside of a memorable Seinfeld episode, Tomei’s filmography is largely forgettable, yet she has two Academy Awards on her mantle.
My Cousin Vinny is an OK film. Strong performances by Pesci and Gwynne make it much more entertaining than it probably deserved to be.
The only thing I knew about My Cousin Vinny before watching it is that Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for her performance. Based solely on that fact, I assumed it was a serious movie. How else do people get Oscar nominations, right? So it was surprising that this is not only a comedy, but a pretty predictable one at that. No wonder people think Jack Palance read out the wrong name.
If it weren’t for Tomei’s Oscar winning performance, My Cousin Vinny would probably have been forgotten sometime around 1994. It’s your typical “fish out of water” story, placing a wise ass Italian-American, New Yorker lawyer (Joe Pesci) in the Deep South. He must learn to navigate rural Alabama and the legal system, as he defends his cousin in a murder trial. He and his sassy girlfriend (Tomei) clash with the locals, taste the local cuisine, and prove they are most definitely “city mice.”
There isn’t anything new or exciting about this movie. Pesci is playing the same character he always does. Tomei is good, but she’s not Oscar good. (She must have campaigned her ass off to win that statuette.) Their characters are both giant stereotypes that, while fun to watch, would have felt stale even in the early 90s.
I do enjoy the fact that this film is considered one of the most accurate depictions of a courtroom ever created. It’s been praised by judges, discussed by law professors, and included in the American Bar Association’s list of the “25 Greatest Legal Movies” (at number 3, no less). If this is what real trial law is like, then it’s much more entertaining than I thought.