I still haven't seen BABEL or LITTLE CHILDREN (and they were sent to me for free, thank you awards season!), but MY COUSIN VINNY make it's umpteenth appearance on cable and suddenly I'm glued to the tube. You probably know the VINNY story (and if you don't, set the TiVo or buy the unfortunately Spartan DVD), but, to recap: when two New York kids are arrested for murder in Alabama (we know they didn't do it), one of them turns to his lawyer-cousin Vinny for legal assistance. Unfortunately, the murder case is Vinny's very first trial, his courtroom manner is less than optimum, and the prosecutor and Sheriff seem to have built a rock solid case.
Comedy is always tough, mainly because one man's funny is another man's stone faced silence. (Adam Sandler in WATERBOY, anyone?) VINNY isn't packed with belly laughs, but it is a warm, upbeat and clever story with some surprising actors (Joe "Do you think I'm funny?" Pesci?!) doing some of the best work of their careers.
And Pesci really is the core of the movie. His "Vinny" isn't as flashy as the thugs he played in GOODFELLAS or CASINO, but Pesci brings something rare and quite wonderful to this movie: a genuine sweetness. He's playing a semi-tough New Yorker, which suggests the usual slough of witless "big city guy makes fun of the Alabama hicks" story, but VINNY takes an equal opportunity approach toward the comedy. For every joke at the expense of the locals, there is another at the expense of Vinny and his fiance, played by Marisa Tomei (who won an Oscar for this performance!). Just when things could get nasty, the movie plays it "nice." When Vinny is dismantling an elderly woman's ocularly-challenged testimony during cross-examination, it's not some ribald burst of character assassination, but a gentle, even tender moment. The woman is just wrong, and Vinny lets her know that without taking away her dignity.
And in the end, it's a movie about everyone trying to do the right thing. The grumpy Alabama Judge (Fred Gwynne) isn't crooked, he's looking for justice, but he's a stickler for protocol. Even the Sheriff (Bruce TIMECOP McGill!) ends up playing a role in exonerating the two unjustly accused kids. Realistic? Unlikely. Fun to see in a movie? Absolutely!
And then there's my favorite moment in the film. When Pesci finally figures out a way to save his cousin and the case is dismissed, there is a hug between Pesci and his cousin (Ralph Macchio) that starts a little comedically, then becomes heartfelt, and I swear, I choke up every time I see it. The hug just isn't about winning the case, but about Vinny's redemption, and both characters know it.
I had an e-mail exchange with VINNY's writer Dale Launer years ago, and I asked him how he came up with the classic "positronic suspension" bit that solves the case. He said he just knew it, after years of messing around with cars. Which goes to the heart of what someone once said about writers: you don't need to be the expert on a specific subject, but it's sure helpful to know a little about a lot.
Anyway, MY COUSIN VINNY. A great movie!