The FilmDrunk Law Review: 11 Reasons to Indict My Cousin Vinny

Please, no talking during this column and turn off your cell phones!

Now, I generally don’t know what movies people have and haven’t seen anymore. My assumption is yes for Star Wars and no for Bucky Larson, but everything in between is kind of a mystery. So while My Cousin Vinny was hardly an obscure art-house gem when it was released, that was over 20 years ago, and who the f*ck knows what the kids are watching these days.

Opening statement. It’s good, and that’s a bold statement to make about a movie that uses Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” in the trailer:

Irritatingly, it is on neither Netflix Instant nor Amazon Prime, so you’ll have to pay to rent it. Like some kind of animal.

1. Quality Guaranteed. Academy Award winner Joe Pesci stars as the eponymous “Cousin Vinny”–Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, to be exact (foreshadowing). He had won for Goodfellas about a year before this movie was released, so despite the fact that MCV is a comedy, I was kind of scared to laugh at him.

Marisa Tomei plays his girlfriend, and she went on to win an Oscar for doing so. Fun defamatory fact–there was a Hollywood rumor for a while that she didn’t actually win, but that the presenter at the Academy Awards had read her name by mistake. Which is a cold thing to say, and f*ck anybody who said it, because she has been nominated twice since. And also

2. Why Hello There, Marisa Tomei. She looks great now, but in the early ’90s? MADONN’. In any event, a talented actress worthy of our respect.

3. Enough With the Digressions. Right. Plot in a nutshell–two New Yorkers (including Ralph Macchio, the eponymous “My”) are driving through Alabama. They have, we find out, recently finished college at NYU and are on their way to graduate school at UCLA. After they stop for snacks at a gas station along the highway, they become victims of the second most unlikely coincidence in movie history. To wit: minutes after they leave, two similar-looking men in a similar-looking car drive up, rob the store, shoot the clerk and drive away.

The most unlikely coincidence in movie history, of course, is the beginning of Superman 2, when Superman throws an exploding nuclear weapon into outer space at the exact moment that General Zod and his Kryptonian minions, trapped in their CD-case prison, are passing by Earth. The chances of that happening are pretty much one in infinity.

So the students, Bill Gambini (Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (some Jewish actor) are erroneously arrested and charged with murder. Desperate for legal assistance but short on options, because Alabama, Bill calls the lawyer in his family, Cousin Vinny.

4. Noise. I’ve heard a certain kind of distraction referred to as “noise,” and I kind of prefer that term to, say, “distraction.” It’s like when somebody is talking to you and they have meat stuck between their teeth–they could be telling you where the gold is buried or whatever and all you can think about is, do I say something, do I surreptitiously hand them floss or just maintain eye contact until I can get away?

There is a fair amount of noise in this movie. For starters, isn’t it spelled “Vinnie”? Help me out here, Mancini.

Also, I’ve driven from New York to LA–back before my days of flying in the pointy end of the plane–and I never went through the deep south. Highway 80 was, in all likelihood, built to allow northeasterners to get across the country without having to go through the south. So even when Macchio says that they went that way because they thought “the weather and scenery would be nice,” it just made me wonder, why the hell would they think that? What kind of sick bastard would tell them that Alabama had scenery nice enough to justify a longer trip?

Some actual noise: when Pesci and Tomei walk into a bar, there is literally a record scratch. Good luck explaining that to the kids.

The significant plot point that really derailed my thought train: one of these guys is Jewish, and you expect us to believe that the Italian is the one with a lawyer in the family? What is this, magical realism? Are we in the Southern f*cking Wild?

5. The Defendants are Dipshits. Admittedly, they have the second worst luck in the history of movies (see #3), so they deserve a little slack. But when they get arrested, they commit the cardinal sin–they flap their yaps. Have they not been listening to me? No? OK! My readers, however, know that after you’ve been read your rights, you ask for a lawyer and then cut out the chin music. “Everything you say can and will be used against you” and so forth. No talking to the police. I mean, if you get pulled over for speeding, fine, be polite, but once you find yourself in a lineup, the mouth goes shut.

Nostalgia note: Bill and Stan get their one phone call each, as you do. I think that in 1992, though, a lawyer, even a public defender, could really help you out by making as many calls on your behalf as were necessary. In the olden days, nobody had voice mail, much less a cell phone, and a lot of people didn’t even have answering machines yet. It was a goddamn miracle if the person you were calling was at home and in a position to pick up, e.g., not peeing, and not on another call (no call waiting or caller ID either. Remember the busy signal? Good times). So a lot of guys in jail probably wasted their one opportunity to contact somebody on a phone that just kept ringing.

Again: lawyers–you don’t have to like us, but you do have to contact us. And pay us.

6. The Movie is a Little Unfair to Vinny. So, amazingly, Bill gets somebody to answer his call, and Pesci comes to the rescue, along with my sweet sweet Tomei. A brash, fast-talking Eye-talian Brooklyn Yankee (southerners mean “yankee” as an insult but I consider it the highest of compliments) in Alabama? He’s the original fish out of water! The contrast actually works pretty well and is not that unrealistic. Seriously, if you live in one of those places, try going to the other one–you might as well visit Narnia.

Yes, he does some dopey stuff (antagonizing a judge is never shrewd) but they want us to laugh at him for going to an unaccredited law school and not passing the bar until his sixth try. Well, hang on there, Snobby McGee–a lot of people with more advantages than Vinny had, like John F. Kennedy, Jr., didn’t pass the bar exam on their first try. I mean, I did, but we’re talking about mortals here. Even some Yale Law School people don’t pass on their first try, possibly because they teach esoteric sh*t there. The passage rate for graduates of non-ABA accredited schools (Vinny went to the Handsome Boy Modeling Law School or whatever) is even lower, and the rate for people who aren’t taking the test for the first time is even lower than that. Because the bar exam is a bitch, and most people give up if they don’t pass on their first or second try. So Vinny deserves his propers for perseverance.

7. But He’s Kind of a Dipshit Too. He keeps not wearing a suit to court. Come on now. You have a TV, right? They never pulled that sh*t on LA Law. It’s never Casual Friday in court.

8. More Noise. How in the wide wide world of sports does an Italian mook from New York–specifically, the stereotype Vinny represents–not have a bunch of suits? Pesci’s character is half a wiseguy, and you’re telling me he doesn’t have a closet full of dark grey double-breasted selections? At the very least, he needs them for the bi-weekly first communions he presumably attends. If he was required to wear a cardigan, I could see how that might be a problem.

The judge also orders him to comb his hair. Find me this mythical Brooklyn goombah who needs to be told that.

The crime, we are told, takes place in January. Why the f*ck are the guys driving to graduate school in January? Don’t make me come up with explanations in my head while I’m trying to be amused, Movie.

And is Pesci considerably more attractive than I’ve been led to believe? I’m not getting how he pulled Tomei.

9. Why Hello There, Marisa Tomei in a Backless Jumpsuit. Presented without further comment:

Well, one further comment–Tomei has to beg Pesci to marry and rawdog her? What is this movie, a flight of fancy?

10. A Long Walk for a Joke. One of the more famous lines in the movie has Pesci confusing the judge by referring to the defendants as “the two youths,” only he pronounces it “yoots.” It’s amusing enough, so much so that they included it in the trailer. Except, would his character use the word “youths”? Who the hell says “youths”? Is that an Italian thing, Mancini? Va fa en cul’!

11. Unexpected Fairness. After some initial yokelism, the Alabamans are not ridiculed much. Yes, there are a couple of dickheads, but less because they’re southerners than because they’re people, and if you’ve met people, you know that a lot of them are dickheads.  The villain in the story isn’t an evil redneck; it’s coincidence–the prosecutor and police chief are duped into believing the defendants are murderers by The Most Unlikely Coincidence Not Involving Zod in Movie History; they show no particular prejudice towards them.

True, they want to send two people with no priors to the electric chair irrespective of the facts that they have no murder weapon, none of that gunshot residue on the hands or whatever and no evidence of the stolen money, but otherwise the southerners seem pretty cool. We don’t even get to see any racism. I mean, the prosecutor, police chief and judge aren’t black, but let’s not be ridiculous. Even the jury is enchantingly diverse, which is kind of a disappointment–the defendants aren’t minorities, but it always sounds ominous to say that someone faced “an all-white jury.” It gravitases up my story when I tell people that a white judge refused to rescind my speeding ticket. I’m Medgar Evers!

Bonus: My Cousin Vinny may have the worst product tie-in ever. In 1998, Pesci released this:

According to IMDb, “The single ‘Yo Cousin Vinny’ was a hit in some European countries.” I need to know which countries, so we can close our embassies there.

Happy viewing, yoots!

Twitter: @buttockus