‘My Cousin Vinny’ Set The Precedent On Legal Comedies

Thirty years have passed since My Cousin Vinny opened in the mid-March 1992 to rave reviews. On first glance, it seems like the typical fish-out-of-water comedy about cultural differences between an inexperienced lawyer from New York City and a murder case about the wrongfully accused in the Deep South.

It would be easy for this to be just another comedy that perpetuates the stereotype that everyone from the south is an inbred gullible hick and that everyone from the north is quick to criticize. Movies like Deliverance and Southern Comfort show the horrors of people, even from the more metropolitan areas, underestimating people from rural America. But if you need a comedy that treats both sides with the same level of misunderstandings, this is the movie.

The movie begins with two young men, Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield), making a pitstop at the Sac-O-Suds convenience store in rural Alabama. When Bill places a can of tuna in his pocket while his hands full of other groceries, he forgets to pay, only realizing a few miles down the road. But they are immediately stopped by a sheriff deputy patrol vehicle.

Arrested and thrown into a line-up, they are identified but think it’s just because of the can of tuna. Little do they know, the clerk at the store was shot and killed. Eyewitnesses identify their 1964 Buick Skylark, but we know “they didn’t do it.” Confused during questioning, Bill accidentally he’s at fault for stealing the tuna but doesn’t understand Sheriff Dean Farley (Bruce McGill) is questioning about the robbery and murder, only to realize too late he’s waived his rights.

So, they make phone calls and discover that Bill’s cousin, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. So, Vinny and his fiance Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) head down south where they stick out like a sore thumb. Even worse, Vinny isn’t experienced in criminal law but mostly been handling personal injury case. It’s taken him six times to pass the bar exam.

And Vinny, himself, learns the hard way on how trial proceedings work. When he goes to meet Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne), not only does the judge believe in big formalities, but he’s also a graduate of Yale Law School. And Haller has no patience for anyone who doesn’t follow court proceedings properly. He holds Vinny in contempt for not wearing a suit and tie. He holds Vinny in contempt for following proper procedures.

Here’s where another movie would try to make Haller and District Attorney Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith) the bad guys. They’re not. I’ve been in many court rooms and say through many arraignments, hearings and trials. Haller is no different than any other judge I’ve encountered and many of these judges are all smiles and pleasantries outside of the courts. But in the court, they expect certain procedures.

Vinny’s inexperience and his constant arguing with Lisa give the movie some of its best moments. At the same time, they’re having to deal with the geographical differences. No matter where they stay at for lodging, there’s something waking them up early, whether it’s a loud steam whistle, a freight train passing nearby or the squealing sounds of pigs in a barn. Even when Trotter lets Vinny use his cabin in the woods, the loud shrieking of a baby owl wakes him up in the middle of the night.

But Vinny learns how to become a good trial lawyer and litigator after Lisa telling him about disclosure and why Trotter gave him copies of all the files. It’s because he’s required by law to do so. Vinny then begins to interview the eye witnesses for cross-examination.

Its also here where a different movie would portray the eyewitnesses as country bumpkins. But the script by Dale Launer and direction by Jonathan Lynn show that this is typical in all law cases. When Vinny questions a witness over the time frame of when he saw Bill and Stan walk in and when he claims he saw them running out, it’s actually quite typical of a lawyer to question a witness’ testimony. That witness, Sam Tipton (Maury Chaykin) later says that he may have gotten the time wrong as it could’ve been longer than five minutes that he told authorities.

Also, when he produces several pictures he took of the house and surrounding of witness, Ernie Crane (Raynor Scheine) to show there are several obstructions, including a dirty window and bushes and trees between Ernie’s house and the store for him to make a positive identification for only a few seconds.

Next when he speaks with the elderly, Constance Riley (Paulene Myers), he questions her eye-sight by using a tape measurer to demonstrate she might have gotten it wrong. All these props are actually typical of trial proceedings. And while lawyers have to follow procedures, it’s common to use pictures submitted as evidence.

It’s no surprise that in the last 30 years, this has been used in law classes as an example. However, it does get a lot of things wrong. Bill is charged with murder but Stan is charge with accessory to murder. Actually, judging by the testimony, if he was seen with Bill running out, he’d be charged with murder too since robbery was the primary motive. And Vinny wouldn’t be allowed to represent both of them, unless they were legally married, which wasn’t the case in 1992 Alabama.

Also, Trotter would have tried to use Stan to turn state’s evidence against Bill or vice versa. A DA also wants to get a conviction and if they can get a plea, that’s usually better than running the risk with a jury trial. Also, questioning Vinny’s experience, Stan initially goes with a public defender, John Gibbons (Austin Pendleton), who is actually no better than Vinny. So, Stan fires him and goes back to Vinny. Yet this wouldn’t happen. Stan would have to request a hearing, without the jury present, to tell Haller that he doesn’t think Gibbons is an effective attorney. Haller would either have to tell Stan to stay with Gibbons or conclude Gibbons is not doing an effective role (which he clearly doesn’t) and declare a mistrial, so Stan could get another attorney.

I’m no lawyer, but there’s a lot of little things in this movie that get at me. Both Trotter and Sheriff Farley wouldn’t have been so easy to put the case away in real life. But the movie does make Farley a little more sympathetic as he assists Vinny when he uncovers something during the trial. But then again, as sheriff, Farley would have to do it anyway. In no way would Bill and Stan be taken to a prison because the county jail is condemned. There are procedures and rules. They’d be transferred to a neighboring county jail. Also, no jailer (unless they wanted to be fired immediately) would allow Vinny alone in a prison cell with Bill and Stan.

But these are little things you can overlook. Because the movie actually has some smarts. It pulls a nice ace in the third act when Vinny notices tire marks left outside the grocery store and gets Lisa on the witness stand to discuss that the tire marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest because it had independent rear suspension and positraction, which wasn’t available on the Buick Skylark. When she tells people without that, it’d be like being stuck in the mud when the driver presses the gas pedal one wheel turns and the other doesn’t.

The movie hints at this twice, which is a smart move by the filmmakers. And when Trotter brings in expert witness FBI analyst George Wilbur (James Rebhorn), he actually makes it easier for Lisa, who used to work in an auto repair garage with her family, to testify, because she’s there to refute Wilbur’s testimony. And since he’s an analyst experience in automobiles, he would know that a Buick Skylark couldn’t make tire marks but a Pontiac Tempest.

This true knowledge mixed with Tomei’s great performance makes the scene work. In fact, Tomei steals the whole movie. Despite an awful rumor by film critic Rex Reed, Tomei rightfully won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year. And looking back, you can see why. At first glance, she just seems like a NYC caricature, but she brings a three-dimensional depth to her role.

In the end, Trotter requests that the charges be dropped. This is a smart move because he’s facing an acquittal and a loss. You can actually see in Smith’s performance he knows his character has lost the case, but he’s wanting to see how it all plays out himself. And at the end, neither Haller, Trotter nor Farley are antagonistic toward Vinny but have respect for him as a lawyer. That’s the way the criminal and court proceedings work. As Vinny tells Haller earlier in the movie, you “win some, lose some.”

While the movie does earn its R rating with a a lot of profanity, mostly spoken by Vinny and Lisa, it’s also works in areas it’s should. (Vinny’s whole opening statement is calling Trotter’s statement “bullshit.) A lot of the memorable moments came by accident. The famous “two youts” comment came apart because Lynn, who was raised in England, had never heard the phrase before and they put in in the movie. Another scene in which Vinny accidentally knocks Haller’s chest pieces off the board was by accident. If you look closely, you can see Gwynne glance off screen to the crew. Growing up in Georgia about an hour from where most of the movie was filmed, the Sac-O-Suds, itself was a fully functioning convenience store at the time that was include because the crew like the name of it.

Yes, I agree with other critics that Bill and Stan spend most of the second half just reacting as the movie spent the first half building them up. You can see the actors trying not to laugh and failing in the background as Pendleton stutters and spits his way through his opening statement.

While I have a theory that “wrongfully accused” law movies dropped off the radar following the O.J. Simpson trial, My Cousin Vinny still manages to make people law with its surprise comedic performances by Pesci and the then-unknown Tomei. Also, Gwynne would later pass away a year later in 1993. And Chaykin, Myers, Rebhorn and Smith have all since passed as well.

But this movie will live in for many years to come.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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