Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Preamble:  So, a short while ago our own JimD suggested I watch the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny and review it in honor the film's 20th anniversary.  I had never seen the movie, and declined.  Not a week later, the movie came on cable and I recorded it.  Over about 2.25 workouts on the elliptical, I watched the movie.  JimD is free to use this any way he pleases.

I had never seen My Cousin Vinny prior to the suggestion that I participate in a 20th Anniversary retrospective of the film.  My primary memory of the movie is that it was part of three separate waves moving through American movie-going at the time.  (1)  In the wake of 1990's Goodfellas, America had very much embraced actor Joe Pesci.  It would be another 2-3 years and I would suffer through With Honors (1994) before he would sort of disappear once again.  (2)  There was also a small trend in the manner of Doc Hollywood to show city folk as fish-out-of-water in the country and (3) since the 1980's, people from highly urban areas with New York accents were often presented as having special powers that helped them navigate in the city and bamboozled people in the country or suburbs (see any movie from the 1980's).  Country folk (or Australians) also had super powers.  Only suburbanites were not imbued with special skills or powers from their environment.



The movie is now most famous for the, as memory serves, surprise nomination and win of Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito, the titular Vinny's long-suffering and unlikely fiance.  It is also famous for being the last place anyone of my generation remembers seeing Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio show up in a movie.

In a way, My Cousin Vinny is a festival of "oh, that guy" character actors all appearing in the same movie.  Most notably Herman Munster actor Fred Gwynne plays the cranky rural judge, but we also get Lane Smith as a local prosecutor, Bruce McGill as a sheriff, Maury Chaykin as a witness to the alleged crime, James Rebhorn as the government car-guy and others.

The plot centers around two youths from New York driving through Alabama when they're taken for the perpetrators of a murder at a convenience store.  Having no money, Ralph Macchio's family sends down the very clearly not-young (looking in his mid-50's at age 49) recent law-school grad, Vinny Gambini, a sort of all-encompassing stereotype of ridiculous New Yorkers formed in the minds of us living in the suburbs of fly-over country in the early 90's.  Vinny is a blowhard who dresses badly, wears his hair in a pompadour, drives a silly car and sees absolutely nothing unethical about lying to judges and potentially throwing his own cousin into the electric chair thanks to his negligence and incompetence.

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't even watch Law & Order, so from the first scene, I can't say much about the legal proceedings that occur in the course of the movie.  Or how or why the trial seems to draw about the same attention as a traffic ticket when its a murder trial with all the makings of a press bonanza.  Of course, this movie precedes the OJ trial, the rise of Court TV and the decline of Headline News into welcoming Jane Velez-Mitchell onto our screens entirely on purpose, so it can be somewhat forgiven for thinking the trial would draw sparse local attention, let alone no media.

I'll be honest, My Cousin Vinny is the sort of very broad comedy that I was avoiding already by 1992 and it more or less is exactly what I thought it would be, minus the fish-out-of-water learning to love small town life and making friends with local color.  In fact, it remains positively xenophobic of its smalltown Alabama surroundings right up to the final minutes of the film where our heroes sprint to escape from the backwater berg and return to Brooklyn where Pesci's Vinny will tell a terrifying tale of being thrice thrown in jail while trying the same case.  Its an interesting and daring take, in which the characters not only avoid the cliched path, but also sort of fail to grow as characters whatsoever, their latent New Yorker powers kicking in to save the Karate Kid.

The courtroom results are never in doubt, the comedy relies on big yuks like the funny foods folks in the south eat (Grits!  Hilarious!), but the interactions between Vinny, Mona Lisa and the locals are confined to the courtroom and a curious run in with locals at a bar over a pool game we don't see, the plotline of which goes nowhere, and doesn't make much sense (why don't the country guys just roll Vinny?  Pesci is scary in Goodfellas, here he's a sort of fop).

Marisa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress at the 65th Academy Awards, the nomination of which must have shocked quite literally everytone involved, let alone her win.  Who was she up against?

Marisa Tomei – My Cousin Vinny


Oh.  Well, you know...  I have a theory on this.

Marisa Tomei is totally, ridiculously good looking.*

That's not a dig at any of the other lovely ladies nominated, but, Tomei makes a catsuit made of the same fabric the sofa my folks had in our formal living room in 1988 kind of work.  I basically think the other talented women split the vote and when voters were filling out ballots, they remembered "the cute girl with the wacky outfits in that one movie.  She was funny."  Vanessa Redgrave's catsuit in Howard's End just couldn't compete.

this isn't the best picture, but you get the idea
Tomei's storyline is resolved in only the most cursory of manners, and its pretty clear that she and Vinny have a highly dysfunctional relationship that doesn't get resolved because he realizes her value as an equal.  He realizes her value as a tool that he was smart enough to use.  The movie seems to want the character to somehow equal or surpass Vinny in intellect, and hints around that could happen, but...  nope.

see, I'd look terrible in that purple dress
Now, Tomei is good, and I don't want to make it sound like she's not.  Its just that she's not playing a character, she's playing a sterotype in form-fitting outfits.  She and Fred Gwynne are the only actors who seem to be aware that this is a comedy, or who have a sense of what will actually make this work.  I tip my hat, but...  its not like this is a groundbreaking movie or a character we'd never seen before.

Following her surprise nom and award, Tomei did go on to do several much less cheesy parts in which she wasn't the good-looking prop to keep viewers distracted, and she has significant acting chops.  Here, however, its all pretty hammy, and aside from the 90's love of a good catch-phrase or cartoonishly over the top stereotype as character, I find the award mind-boggling.

My favorite courtroom movie is Anatomy of a Murder, a movie which does walk the viewer through the process fairly well (the novel goes into infinitely more detail and manages to remaining gripping til the last page.  I recommend!) which this movie isn't trying to emulate, but the film does ask us to care about the procedure and process of the courtroom, something we're to believe we understand better than Mr. Gambini who has been studying the law for 8 years.  I will say that the use of evidence makes for a tidy ending to the movie (and seems like it may be the last remaining core of an otherwise watered-down script), although I've no idea if procedure, etc... were correct for any part of the trial.  I will say I appreciated the fact that the movie didn't go out of its way to make the prosecutor, sheriff or anyone else cartoonishly hostile, and made it all feel sort of collegial.  But it does set up a peculiar Man Vs. Himself premise to the movie that I don't know it entirely resolves.

I suppose they still make movies like this.  I'm not really sure.  These were the sorts of movies I'd only see when my folks insisted the whole clan was seeing a movie together during Christmas, and then I'd get in trouble afterward because I wouldn't say I'd liked it.  (see the My Fellow Americans incident of  Christmas '96).  In the end, the movie sort of fails in part because Joe Pesci isn't actually funny.  He seems sort of confused and dumb, and emotionally detached from Tomei who is carrying all the weight plotwise and from a comedic standpoint.  Its satisfying to a certain audience in its utter predictability, but its not much... fun.

Still, people refer to this movie all the time, so I am likely missing something.



*Take THAT, Joan Plowright and all your years of serious acting
Post a Comment