Sometimes there are movies that you are aware of, know about by reputation as being beloved by many, and yet you do not get why everyone likes them despite you having never seen them. My Cousin Vinny (1992) is one such specific example. I vaguely remember when it came out when I was a youngster, and not being interested in it then, though it does have Ralph Macchio from The Karate Kid (1984) as the slightly troublesome Bill Gambini in it. I will get into why he earns that descriptor later. At any rate, my lack of enthusiasm for My Cousin Vinny would have continued until a certain special someone suggested it to me. There are some requests you cannot ignore.
I mentioned Ralph Macchio’s Bill Gambini in my introduction, but that is the title character in My Cousin Vinny. Regardless, Bill and a friend, Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield), are on their way to college, driving through Alabama. After they load up on supplies at one of those kitschy Southern gas stations called Sac-O-Suds, Bill realizes he had inadvertently stuffed a can of tuna in his pocket and walked out of the store without paying for it. Unfortunately, shortly after they left, the same establishment is robbed by two men fitting their description. It is not long thereafter that they are pulled over and brought to the sheriff’s station for questioning. Bill believes this is about the tuna, and admits to the mistake even though Sheriff Dean Farley (Bruce McGill) thinks he is confessing to murder. Before Bill realizes the misunderstanding, he and Stan are being booked for a capital offense. When Bill calls his mother, he is reminded of the fact that there is a lawyer in their family, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci). One problem: Vinny is in Brooklyn, practices personal injury law, and has never been in a trial. Nonetheless, he arrives in rural Alabama with his fiancé Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), and sets to work defending his cousin. The already difficult task is not helped by the judge, Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne), who insists that his proceedings follow a decorum foreign to Vinny’s brash Brooklyn habits. Adding to the complications is the lack of faith in Vinny on Stan’s part, which is not helped when Vinny is thrown in jail with them for contempt of court for not adhering to correct procedure. Vinny and Mona Lisa also have problems fitting into the town, particularly as everything that goes on it seems determined to make them awaken before the sun’s rising. Finally, there is the evidence. There are witnesses who positively identified Bill and Stan; the assailants apparently drove a similar car; and Vinny’s lack of knowledge in these matters means that he does not quite know how to move forward. Mona Lisa tries to help, but each time she is rebuffed by her fiancé, who wants to put up a good defense on his own. What Vinny does have going for him is a sharp mind and an ability to adapt. When he discovers from Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith), the district attorney prosecuting the case, that they are supposed to turn over their findings to the defense, Vinny uses this opportunity to take apart each witness. In court, he is able to discredit each of the prosecutions’ witnesses as to their ability to have known that it was Bill and Stan who had committed the crime. Still, Jim has one more expert on hand to give what seems like a conclusive testimony as to Bill and Stan’s guilt. Their car, a 1964 Buick Skylark, is supposedly positively linked as the vehicle in which the assailants fled, a theory supported by Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Special Agent George Wilbur (James Rebhorn). He claims that tire marks left at the scene could only have come from Bill’s car. Vinny believes this might be the clincher, and feels he must work extra hard to come up with an answer. This determination goes against Mona Lisa’s wishes, and she decides to leave. Not long after her exit, though, Vinny notices something in the photo of the skid marks that Mona Lisa could refute. Plus, the only way to keep her is to have the court hold her as a witness. Thus, on the appointed day, a fuming Mona Lisa takes the stand. As somebody who grew up in her father’s car shop, she has an encyclopedic grasp of all things automobile. In turn, she is able to rebut the prosecution’s theory that Bill’s car is the one that had burned rubber in the Sac-O-Sud’s parking lot. Furthermore, the real perpetrators are caught nearby, and the case is dismissed.
I was charmed by My Cousin Vinny, though it should be pointed out how much the film relies on clichés for much of its humor. While the laughs are saved by good writing and acting, the main crux is the supposed hilarity of putting a Brooklyn hustler in a genteel Southern courtroom. Furthermore, Vinny, as the Northerner, is smarter than the Southerners whom he encounters. As there is not much of a Catholic perspective to give on the film, other than the Gambinis likely being part of the Faith, along with Mona Lisa, I will instead focus on one of the stereotypes in the movie that is barely explored. Cinematically, one of the things associated with the South in many films is its prison system, and the fact that they seem to take delight in corporal punishment in that part of the country. When Bill and Stan first arrive at the correctional facility, they are told that one of the buildings they are escorted past is where they keep the inmates on death row. There is a tinge of pride in the guard’s voice that delivers this tidbit. Like any stereotype, this is unfair to the South, though I do live in a state where the death penalty is still on the books. My Catholic Faith tells me, and its a principle I follow, that such a punishment is not right. I get it. When somebody commits so heinous an act as to kill another person, we want immediate justice. It is hard to accept the ultimate fate of such a criminal when we seek more immediate redress. The Church does not condone this eye-for-an-eye brand of justice because it does not give God a chance to redeem the perpetrator. God desires all of His creations to be with Him in Heaven. He grieves for each one of us when we sin, an act that separates us from Him. At the same time, absolution of sins is real, no matter their nature. Everything else is between that person and God. Who are we to take away the opportunity for a person to find their way back to God?
Of course, this is much more of a serious-minded conversation than My Cousin Vinny would support. It is meant to be lighthearted throughout, despite it centering on a murder trial. Anyway, I am glad for the person who suggested it, as well as the movie. If only there could be more hidden classics that I have not seen that people suggest.