18 March 2014

My Cousin Vinny


1992
Directed by: Jonathan Lynn
Starring: Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Fred Gwynne, Lane Smith, 
Austin Pendleton, Bruce McGill, Ralph Macchio, Mitchell Whitfield
This is one movie that I can watch on a continuous loop and not tire. It is hysterically funny, not because of slapstick, but because of bravura performances from Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci, not to mention Fred Gwynne as Judge Chamberlain Haller.  He must take the cake, the bakery, and the icing for saying the most comical lines in the most taciturn and deadpan manner, ever.  I have been meaning to review this film for the longest of time, but have been putting it off, for no particular reason that I can think of. As one of my go-to movies when I'm feeling blue (I defy anyone to watch this and continue to feel blue!), it absolutely deserves a post of its own. A cult classic here, it is a shame that it is not better known, or appreciated than it is. 

Let me sound a warning though, about the language. Lots of profanity. Especially the F-word, which is used almost as punctuation. I tire of profanity used to sound 'cool' (or 'hip' or whatever the current trendy word is). I do believe, perhaps wrongly, that profanity is resorted to when  you have nothing intelligent to say. Prudish? Perhaps. But I'll live. In this film, however, the use of profanity doesn't jar, because it seems natural to the way the characters talk in real life. It didn't seem to be gratuitous, and somehow it didn't raise a blip on my consciousness through repeated viewings; it is only now when I'm sitting down to write the review and was thinking of adding a couple of the dialogues to exemplify the repartee that I even realised just how prevalent it is. It still didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film. 
Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stanley Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) are two New York kids who are on their way to join UCLA (University of California). They decide to drive down together, taking a detour through Alabama 'because the scenery is prettier'. (In real life, that would be driving way out of their way. ) Driving through rural Alabama, they stop at a convenience store to pick up some snacks. It is only when they are on their way does Stan realise that Bill has shoplifted a can of tuna. Bill says he put it into his pocket because his hands were full, and that he forgot to pay for it; but no one saw him, and he is damned if he is going to go back to return a can of beans. He just laughs at Stan's apprehension. 

That laughter stills very quickly when they notice a police car behind them, lights flashing. They pull over, and are soon hauled off to the police station, photographed and booked. When the Sheriff (Sheriff Dean Farley/ Bruce McGill) approaches, a frightened Bill apologises for the misdemeanour. 
 
He is willing to waive his rights and sign a confession. Surely it is nothing serious? Until the Sheriff talks about jail time and the death penalty. Death penalty? For stealing a can of tuna? Since both the Sheriff and the two boys are talking at cross-purposes, it only then dawns on the boys that they have been charged with the murder (and accessory after the fact) of the clerk at the convenience store (and had, in fact confessed to it). 

So out of their element, and knowing no one in the area, the boys panic. Using the one phone call that all accused are allowed, Bill makes a call to his mother. Fortunately, she remembers a cousin who is a lawyer, and Bill urges her to send 'Cousin Vinny' down to Alabama as soon as she can. 
'Cousin Vinny' has only recently become a lawyer. But full of family feeling (Billy and he are Italian-Americans), Vincent 'Vinny' LaGuardia Gambini sashays down to the 'red-neck' South to get his young cousin out of jail. 
Unfortunately, Cousin Vinny has never tried a criminal case in his short time as a lawyer. In fact, he hasn't tried any major case. But he has the New York accent and the attitude to go with it. He arrives in town accompanied by his equally brash girlfriend Lisa - Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). 
They both stick out like sore thumbs in the little town, though Vinny is sure that he fits in - he has cowboy boots! Bill and Stan are rather taken aback. But with no other help in view, they are stuck with Cousin Vinny as their defence. 
If they are slightly stunned at their lawyer, Judge Chamberlain Haller is even more so. Vinny looks like no lawyer the judge has ever seen, and Vinny's stories about his career are rather shady. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, however, the judge allows him to be the attorney for defence. More shocks are in store for Bill and Stan. When meeting up for the arraignment, their defence lawyer is thrown into jail himself - for contempt of court. 

If that is not all, at the preliminary hearing the next day to decide 'probable cause' a sleep-deprived Vinny doesn't interrogate any of the witnesses. Stan is furious. If Vinny was any sort of a lawyer, they could have got the case thrown out of court. But as Vinny later points out, rather succinctly, "Hey Stan, you are in Ala-f***-bama. You come from New York. You kill a good ol' boy. There's no way this case is not going to trial." (Vinny is once again thrown into jail for contempt of court.)

Stan finally gives up - he fires Vinny as his lawyer and takes advantage of the public defender. Now Vinny is left with only Bill to defend (and even Bill is not convinced his cousin can help) and the case is going to trial. The district attorney, Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith) is only too happy to 'help'. In fact, he has even invited Vinny to hunt with him. Vinny is all eagerness. Maybe the DA will drop his guard enough so he can get some information out of him. Lisa is furious. They are going to hunt deer? (The resulting dialogue is hilarious!)
The next morning, the court meets to pick the jury. And Vinny is in trouble again. Though he has taken the effort to dress more like Judge Haller would like to see lawyers of his court dress, he is faced with bad news from the judge. There are no official records of a Vincent Gambini trying any case in New York State. 
Vinny carries it off with a high hand - he used to be Jerry Gallo. But now, he's changed his name legally to Vincent Gambini, but he still practices under his old name. That is why there are no records of Vincent Gambini. The judge is not entirely convinced, but is forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. Only, as Lisa points out later, Jerry Gallo, the hotshot New York attorney, is dead.
Vinny is still sleep-deprived when the trial begins the next day. Having slept through the prosecution's opening statement, he is still sleeping (and snoring) when the judge calls upon him to make his opening statement. It is probably the shortest opening statement in the history of court trials: "Everythin' that guy just said is bulls**t. Thank you." Not surprisingly, it is struck from the records. Stan's lawyer, Gibbons (Austin Pendleton) gets up to make his opening statement - and it is then that Stan discovers that his lawyer is 'nervous' and cannot complete a sentence without stuttering.
 
The trial proceeds, with Vinny cross-examining the prosecution's witnesses. The first witness is thoroughly muddled by the time Vinny finishes with him (How could it take you five minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit-eating world twenty minutes?) and his testimony is shot to pieces. 
 
An impressed Stan fires the public defender and takes Vinny back on as his attorney. But Vinny is back in jail for contempt of court - again. This time however, he stops Lisa from bailing him out. He is more likely to get a good night's sleep in jail. The next morning, a refreshed Vinny decimates the testimony of the prosecution's second witness. 
And the third witness as well. Vinny has also (finally) impressed the judge. The DA is also rethinking his initial opinion of the Yankee. He calls not only to congratulate Vinny but also to warn him that the prosecution still has an ace up its sleeve. That is Mr George Wilbur (James Rebhorn), the special automotive instructor for forensic studies for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Wilbur's measured, unbiased testimony derails all the progress that Vinny has made so far. What is worse is that the judge has further evidence - against Vincent! The smooth-talking Vinny manages to buy some time for himself, but the judge is definitely not convinced. For want of evidence, he is forced to put off throwing the law book at Vinny. 

Vinny is not quite so lucky with Lisa. When her offer of help is rejected by Vinny in the most obnoxious manner, Lisa leaves in a huff. Now he is due in court, and he knows something is missing. But what? It is then that Vinny notices a photograph that Lisa had taken; he's found the missing piece of the jigsaw, but he needs Lisa to testify as an expert witness. But how is he going to get her to testify now? 
 
Will Lisa take the stand? Will the DA allow her to be sworn in as an 'expert witness'? What can she say that will change the course of the trial? 

There is much to love about the film, not the least its complete laugh-worthiness. The plot is pure comedy. I defy anyone to watch this film and not laugh out loud. What I loved best about this film, set in Alabama (but filmed in Georgia), was the chemistry - not just between Tomei and Pesci, but between all the characters. This film couldn't have worked if even one of them fell down on the job. From the hot-shot prosecutor who wants to nail the case (and the hides of the suspects) to the pathetic excuse of a defence lawyer who is happy just to get a plea bargain, from the not-unintelligent cop to the canny judge, from Bambini, ex-auto mechanic turned lawyer, who passed his Bar exam on the sixth attempt, to Tomei's opinionated out-of-work hairdresser who nevertheless knows cars inside out - they were all brilliant.  

Joe Pesci was in his element as Vincent LaGuardia Bambini, a New York lawyer who scurries down to help defend his young cousin from a charge of murder. He had appeared in Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull before this, and in Good Fellas (as well as a bunch of other movies and TV shows, but these were the best known), but this was his initial foray into comedy. As the (self-)acclaimed New York lawyer, he is completely out of his comfort zone in rural Alabama. And the fish-out-of-water-ness is so beautifully portrayed. 
He is obnoxious, argumentative, sexist, and yet, very, very likable. We all need one such cousin to come to our help - provided he is accompanied by someone as street smart as Mona Lisa Vito.
Marisa Tomei. Aah. How do I even begin to describe her Lisa? She was irrepressible, she was charming, she was a complete delight! So totally over-the-top in so restrained a manner, and if that is a contradiction in terms, then that effectively describes the character.  Tomei won a well-deserved Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role. I don't know which of her scenes I love best - the one where she describes a doe's unconcern about the pants her hunter wears, or the one where she informs Vinny that her biological clock  is ticking...
...or even the courtroom scene where she initially thinks she is getting the better of Vinny. The chemistry between her and Pesci's Gambini is so scintillating, they bounce their lines off each other with such precision that they take the script and the dialogue and run with it. It's an amazing performance and an absolute delight for us as viewers. Now if only someone had taken the two of them after this movie and given them something that was worthy of their talent! 

As I said before, add Frank Gwynn to my list of people whom I shouldn't listen to, while drinking coffee. Keyboards suffer accidents that way. He's got the drollest way of saying his dialogues, and lines that may seem flat on paper come alive on screen. 
Take the scene where Vinny is forced to call Lisa as witness for defence, literally carrying her into the courtroom. He asks Judge Haller permission to treat Ms. Vito as a hostile witness. Lisa responds by saying "You think I'm hostile now? Wait 'til you see me tonight!" Judge Haller interrupts: "Do you two know each other?" Yes, says Vinny, she's his fiancée."Well," says the judge, "that would certainly explain the hostility." 

I also liked the court scenes. Because Jonathan Lynn has a law degree, the courtroom procedures and trial strategies were more realistic than they usually are. In addition, the film skewered complete stereotypes to show us lovingly drawn characterisations instead. Because all of them - 'sophisticated' city slicker or Southern 'redneck' - had some stereotypical traits, and assumed the others were caricatures they had read or heard about. By the end of the film, many assumptions clash with reality and fade into oblivion. Supported by a script that is deadly humorous, and sparklingly witty dialogues (the conversation about 'yoots' between Haller and Vinny is deadly), and a direction that melded the parts to make the whole better than just the sum of its parts, My Cousin Vinny scored, and scored big time.

Oh, if you haven't seen this film yet,  just stop reading and go watch My Cousin Vinny, all of you! If you have, don't you think it is time for a re-watch?

34 comments:

  1. It is time for a re-watch. I have seen this a couple of times on movie channel and LOOOOOOVE it. For all the reasons you have mentioned.

    The movie is a delight from the first scene to last. Even though its a comedy, the threat the young boys face is very real. That adds a bit of edge to the comedy. If Vinny fails, its curtains for his young cousin.

    Marisa Tomei is such a sweetheart. She aces every role she is given (that I have seen).

    Amazing film.

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  2. the threat the young boys face is very real. That adds a bit of edge to the comedy.
    Yes. That is exactly why most of the court scenes have that tension that you can palpably feel.

    Totally agree with you about Marisa Tomei.

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  3. I haven't seen My Cousin Vinny, though I'm familiar with the name. :-( I didn't even know what the film's about! Now I must go searching for it and watch it, pronto. It sounds utterly hilarious. :-D

    Talking about go-to films to dispel the blues, my favourites in that category are Arsenic and Old Lace and I Soliti Ignoti. Such a barrel of laughs, both of them. And yes, Chupke-Chupke.

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  4. This is by far the best review that I've come across for this film. I'm yet to watch the film as I used to regularly miss out since I was a child then. These days films like MM are not shown at all. I really love the way you translated the song "Poongaathu Thirumbumaa" though it looked funny :). Sivaji Ganesan was definitely an actor to watch out for. Believe it or not, SG was one of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's favourites. During a film festival in Bangalore, when the latter was asked if there is any unfulfilled wish, he replied that his idea to cast the thespian in his films remained a dream forever! And when he was questioned that, don't you think his (Sivaji) acting was hammy, he retorted, is there a definitive scale available to measure the amount/quality of acting one has to exhibit? Likewise, when the French govt. personnel came to inquire Satyajit Ray about SG before bestowing the Chevalier title on him (Ray was the previous recipient from India), he said SG is a much deserving candidate!

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  5. Oh, Madhu, you must watch this film. :) You'll wonder why you hadn't seen it before! It's a 'fun'-tastic ride, and as Ava says, the consequences of what can happen if Vinny fails lends an edge to all the comedy.

    Agree with you about Chupke Chupke though I'm a bit conflicted about Arsenic and Old Lace. Haven't watched I Soliti Ignoti, and ashamed though I am to confess my ignorance, hadn't heard of it until now, either. So, yet another film to go on to my higher-than-ever pile of to-watch films. Bad Madhu. Bad, bad, Madhu.

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  6. Thank you, Venkatesh. It's much appreciated. Though I must deny any credit (?) for the 'translations'. They are the ghastly sub-titles that are inflicted on DVDs of regional cinemas everywhere. I think it is available on YouTube, though I will not guarantee the quality of the print. :)

    I really, really liked Sivaji Ganesan in this film, as I did in Oru Yathramozhi which he did across the border. I agree with you that his talent was grossly underutilised, everyone apparently preferring the over-the-top hamming that passed off for 'acting' at the time.

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  7. Lol, that was funny! I never saw those pictures from a film-enthusiast's point of view :) More recently, I came across Oru Yathramozhi when it was aired on a Malayalam movie channel. I saw Sivaji, dressed up as an old man, speaking Tamil. However, I was not that interested to watch the movie as I have a very little understanding of Malayalam. Coming to Radha's performance in this film, I cannot really comment since I've not watched the film. But I personally feel, Kamal's niece did a fabulous job in Sindhu Bhairavi. KB was better than BR in bringing out talents from the actors. Besides, BR has the habit of making his actors perform weird acting-styles that one could see in the street plays of rural Tamil Nadu. Radha, in an interview told that he insisted on a number of re-takes for a particular scene which involves her carrying a waterpot and walking like a typical rural woman (though it was highly artificial and a real-life case). I feel these unrealistic styles might have costed her the award :) And coming to Sridevi's case, she had lost the award to Shabana Azmi for Arth. I was amazed after seeing Revathi's performance in Marupadiyum. If Revathi could render such a performance why not Shabana Azmi? So I think the jury were right on both the occasions.

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  8. Venkatesh, I'm speaking as a person who's seen both films. Honestly, there was no comparison. Suhasini was horrendous and the film itself, regressive. I am a great fan of Suhasini, having seen her in countless Malayalam films, but she definitely did not deserve the award for Sindhu Bhairavi!


    What has Revathi's performance in Marupadiyun have to do with Shabana Azmi or Sridevi? Again, not taking anything away from Shabana, who, again, is one of my favourite actresses, her performance in Arth was not a patch on Sri's performance in Moondram Pirai. But we can agree to disagree. :)

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  9. I like Joe Pesci and I know about this film, I regret not paying much attention to the film for the simple reason I wasn't too sure how it would be, but your review clearly indicates it is a hilarious film, well will have to look out for it.

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  10. Ah. Didn't know that Marupadiyum was the remake of Arth. Well, I watched Shabana in Arth and she was good, as she always is. I personally think that her performance in that film was not a patch on Sridev's in Moondram Pirai.

    And of course, it is my opinion. Whose opinion would I be spouting, pray? :)

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  11. Oh, do, Shilpi. I can guarantee you won't regret it!

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  12. Here's my review of I Soliti Ignoti:

    http://dustedoff.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/i-soliti-ignoti-1958/

    Delightful movie. :-)

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  13. I went to your review first. Oh, I have to watch this film now! Bad Madhu. Bad, bad Madhu!

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  14. Definitely! And Kamal won a well-deserved National Award for this role. But then, I wasn't comparing her performance to Kamal's, no?

    I just might end up reviewing Oru Yathramozhi one of these days. So you can wait until then. :)

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  15. //Kamal won a well-deserved National Award for this role// Ah, at least you agree with me on this one :)

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  16. Of course! Koi shaq? Kamal (in those days, particularly) was a joy to watch. The man is amazing! He made it look so natural and so easy.

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  17. Lol, I know that :) Oh, were you a resident of TN during the pre-cable TV era?

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  18. Yes, unfortunately. Much as I loved Oliyum Oliyum I really missed my weekly diet of Hindi songs.

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  19. Thanks for reminding me of this. I watched it years ago when DD used to telecast English language films at night, and I remember loving this one. I've often wondered if its really as good as I remember - your review settles that question! I must re-watch...

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  20. You are welcome. :) And yes, if you haven't watched it for years, you must rewatch. :)

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  21. sounds so good!
    films, films everywhere but no time to watch!

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  22. It is good. So busy? Take time out to watch this film; it will help relax you. :)

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  23. //When Sivaji Ganesan thundered, yenna da? even the heavens trembled//
    Haven't you seen better ones than this in the Telugu films that you've watched :-)

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  24. That being the case, do you mean to say Kamal did not deserve the win for Indian :)

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  25. Sure. :) But that was what I always remembered about him from a film I watched when I was a child.

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  26. Aiayya, how you take one up! awards had to be given to 'real' performances, and anything that needed makeup and jewellery couldn't be real. :) was my version of how an awards jury thinks.

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  27. I doubt AB had anything to do with it. The man has a congenital dislike of using undue influence, from all that I have heard of him. And his clout wouldn't extend to that particular jury panel. But whatever may be the reason, fact is that there were better performances that year. But again, I have no real complaints. I like Rekha as an actress as well. I think she was shamefully underutilised.

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  28. //But those were the times that Kamal could do no wrong//



    I think even now! See the teaser of his forthcoming film Uthama Villain, if you could get any chance!

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  29. Eh, I don't know. I thought Dasavatharam was an exercise in self-indulgence. But I have a soft spot for the man, so am willing to extend a huge benefit of doubt to every film of his. :)

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  30. No wonder you are a hardcore AB fan! However, you shouldn't forget the fact that his win for Agneepath was highly controversial as it was awarded based on some political intervention.

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  31. Oh I know it was controversial alright. I don't know that it was political, though. And hardcore fan though I am, I don't think he deserved it for Agneepath either.

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  32. I have landed here when I was in search of songs of praise of cities and read most of your reviews which have taken me 20-25 years back. I would like to read the reviews of my favourites you have listed above like Anbe Sivam and Nala Damayanthi. Thanks in advance.

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  33. Saroja, welcome to my blog. I'm glad my reviews resonate with you. Somewhere, some time, I might get around to writing the reviews of all the films I want to write about. :) Nala Damayanthi and Anbe Sivam are definitely on my list.

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