Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

My Cousin Vinny

How long does it take before a movie becomes a “classic?” A lot of reviewers are fond of the phrase “instant classic,” which strikes me as a total perversion of the whole idea of classics. How about “a brand new antique?” Is 28 years enough? Probably not, I’d opt for more like 50 years before that word could be applied. But this is pretty close to a classic, one of our favorite comedies.

Two guys from New York, through a comedy of errors, get arrested for murder in Alabama. Enter Vinny (Joe Pesci), a personal injury hustler who has never tried a case and on whose bar admittance document the ink is barely dry. It is an epic culture clash. Fred Gwynne is the judge hearing preliminary arguments, and it goes so badly that Vinny spends more time in jail for contempt than in court with the case. At one point he refers to the boys as “utes,” utterly confounding the judge. “Utes?” “Yeah, the utes, the utes.” It is eventually established that he is saying “youths” in a dialect rarely heard south of the Mason-Dixon.

He is accompanied by his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito, a brassy, sassy lady played by Marissa Tomei in an Oscar-winning supporting role. It turns out that she knows more about cars than Henry Ford or Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers ever did, and that is crucial to the ending.

There is a comic bit that is probably politically incorrect, but it cracks us up every time. Austin Pendleton plays the public defender they have at first, and he assures them he will get them off. Then he starts talking to the jury … and he stutters horribly. Sorry, sorry. It’s hilarious, seeing the boys’ reaction, realizing they are sunk.

One other thing I liked about it. It would have been easy to write the judge and the sheriff and the prosecutor as incompetent redneck bubbas, but they’re not. The case against the boys is very good. I would have prosecuted them. The judge is fair, the sheriff convinced he’s got the right guys. When he sees the new evidence, he is contrite. God knows there are a lot of incompetent redneck bubbas in Alabama, such as the current female governor. (A bubbess?) But there are good people everywhere, even in an Alabama courtroom.

You do know that most courtroom dramas are bullshit, right? Things happen, for dramatic purposes, that would never be allowed in court, from Law and Order to A Few Good Men. This one is actually recommended viewing in law schools, lauded by judges and attorneys. John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe wrote that “Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t.” Once he hits his stride, Vinny is great at things like voir dire and cross-examination because he has street smarts.