Pesci's comic skills keep 'Cousin Vinny' afloat

March 13, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In Alabama, Vinny isn't a fish out of water, he's the lawyer from another planet. The planet he's from is Brooklyn, and it might as well be Mars.

Vinny is played by Joe Pesci in a combination of brio, bullet-sweating despair, street cunning and occasional idiocy. In Cousin Vinny" he's summoned to a small Alabama town to defend his college-age cousin (Ralph Macchio, who must be about 40 by now) from a phony murder rap. Imagine his surprise when he learns lawyers are expected to wear coats and ties in court!

The movie is mildly amusing, particularly as it allows Pesci enough room to let his considerable comic talents explode, and as it gives a new actress named Marisa Tomei a nice, big, fat juicy part -- the kind of which stardom is made. And, despite one's fears that it would be another exercise in anti-Southern sanctimony, it generally gets around to being fair to everybody and not too hard on anybody.

The setup is remotely believable. In a roadside convenienc store, Macchio and his buddy Mitchell Whitfield load up on junk food and accidentally forget to pay for a can of tuna fish. A few minutes later they're pulled over by a cop, and Macchio immediately confesses, saying it was an accident and he's sorry it happened. The next day he realizes that he's been busted for murder, not tuna fish. Somebody sank a .357 magnum bullet in the clerk's head.

In despair he calls his mother, who in despair calls the only lawyer she knows, the great Vinny.

Vinny shows up in Mafioso-soldier's cowboy boots and Ray-Ban Wayfarers; he looks and sounds like he should be testifying against John Gotti. But he's an un-wise guy; it turns out he knows from nothing about the law. It took him six years to pass the bar. He's never been in a courtroom. (The movie never explains why, or what he's been doing). He's not sure of the rules of evidence. He thinks everybody who doesn't pronounce "them" as "dem" is some kind of redneck bigot, and every time he opens his mouth, the judge (Fred Gwynne -- and wouldn't it be nice if the film hired a real Southerner?) sends him to jail for contempt.

"My Cousin Vinny" dithers for a while, for after setting up its situation, nobody's quite sure where it's going, and poor Pesci has to carry it on pure slapstick shtick. He slips, he slides, he eats grits. Is this funny? It depends on your Pesci threshold (mine is high) and your slapstick threshold (mine's low).

The movie finally starts clicking as Pesci masters the rudiments of his craft and begins to engage the fairly clever mystery that is at the heart of the movie. This turns on some neat subtleties regarding automotive topography and the script, by Dale Launer (who wrote the better "Ruthless People" and the worse "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"), develops a nice line as it reveals Tomei, initially a fairly standard issue arm decoration, to be sharp as a tack and quick as an adder. She knows cars in the way Vinny doesn't know the law and in the movie's best scene, turns the prosecution's case inside out.

I don't want to oversell "My Cousin Vinny." It's hardly brilliant. But it's easygoing and occasionally quite funny and ultimately satisfying.

'My Cousin Vinny'

Starring Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei.

Directed by Jonathan Lynne.

Released by 20th Century-Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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