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


horus kemwer said...

I saw this movie in the theater and haven't seen it since. Your review is uncanny in its confirmation of my general recollection of the experience. God willing I may manage to avoid seeing it again for the rest of my days.

J.S. said...

I liked it. I'm not sure that the criticism regarding use of stereotypes resonates with me all that strongly when even the poster for the movie clues viewers in to the fact that the movie plays on stereotypes (file under caveat emptor) and the movie's title kind of reflects the fact that it's not going to exactly shy away from boilerplate depictions of working class New Yorkers. I think the movie relies on stereotypes, but it overcomes them to some degree (the city people and the country people come to understand each other better- a point that's secondary to the comedy), and in any case, playing with stereotypes (like it or not) is kind of a firmly established part of the American film/television tradition (as is the triumph of characters once they learn to think outside their stereoptypes- thus the importance of understanding grits). Also... I thought that the whole point of Tomei's scene as an expert witness was to show that she had an intellect equal to Vinny's or anyone else's- it just happened to be in the area of auto mechanics. Vinny initially doesn't realize (to his own detriment) that her different area of knowledge is just as important to the case as his legal knowledge, but ultimately he not only relies on what she knows, but he has to prove up her qualifications as an "expert" to the court (i.e., explaining how long she's worked on cars and how much she knows about them).
Anyway, I liked the movie. I acknowledge that it has some formula to it, but I thought it was well executed. Sorry it wasn't your bag.

The League said...

I would agree that the play of the stereotypes learning from one another is a common trope in film. But that's not actually what happens.

The remarkable thing about the movie is that they really don't learn about each other, and the lesson isn't that Vinny comes to trust or regard Mona Lisa is an equal. He comes to see the one thing he acknowledges she could do in her first scenes as useful to him as he's going down in flames. He doesn't ever really acknowledge that she could help, and turns her away right up until he needs her as a witness for something he already knows (or he wouldn't have called her in as a witness). It might be seen as 6 of these, half-a-dozen of the other, but its a hollow acknowledgement at best.

BTW: The city folk never embrace anyone in the country. They take advantage of the prosecutor's hospitality, but we never see them really "learn" anything from each other, which is usually the point of these movies. Certainly the movie is set up in the same manner of a lot of other movies where that does occur, but here... those scenes don't exist. And the country folk don't come to love the city folks' outlandish ways. "To Wong Foo" this movie is not. Keep in mind, as soon as the gavel hits, Pesci grabs Tomei by the arm so they can get the hell out of there so he won't get arrested and they have literally no reason to stick around.

That the movie counted on the viewer being that familiar with the tropes of the fish-out-of-water story that they short-handed those elements right out of the script and the audience felt it had occurred is symptomatic of comedy from that era and why something like "Dumb & Dumber" seemed incredibly fresh when it came along a few years later (even if it calls back to 1930's style comedy). We were being asked to laugh at expectation rather than the actual film.

It was competent, but it just doesn't actually work all that well.

Anonymous said...

I hope that in the year since writing this review, you have learned not to watch movies spread out over multiple exercise sessions and then write reviews for them. I'm not criticizing you for not liking the movie, but your stated reasons for not liking the movie are often incorrect. For instance, the "grits". Rather than just being a symbol of how silly southern life is (as you say), Pesci learning about grits becomes an important plot point later. The fact that he actually does have enough respect to converse and remember a thing that seems silly and trivial is how he converts the first witness into a win for his side. There are several key misunderstandings like that in this review.

The League said...

Normally I don't post anonymous responses. I think a body should say who they are, even under a pseudonym, and own it if they wander into another person's website to tell them their mind. I have absolutely not learned to watch movies spread out over exercise sessions, and it is still an ideal way for me to catch films I'd otherwise miss. Also, for a movie about the law, one should also do as our beloved Cousin Vinnie would do and defend their points in detail. I am not "wrong" in my opinion of the poor writing in this scene (which, honestly, it's been years and I can't remember this movie anymore). But if you believe I am wrong, please explain how. One silly thing tying into a later plotpoint in a 1990's era scripted movie doesn't make my point regarding the grits any less relevant. It just makes it a script working in a plant and pay-off structure. Clearly you found this review irksome. And that is fine. But I am not wrong.